Can the US and China ping-pong their way to peace again?

Players from the two nations will join in the mixed doubles competition in the World Table Tennis Championships in Houston this week to mark a milestone in sporting and diplomatic history.

Fifty years ago, Chinese leader Mao Zedong invited the US table tennis team to China. The series of friendly matches that followed helped break the ice ahead of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s groundbreaking and secret trip to China months later — which led to President Richard Nixon’s opening to the then-reclusive giant and ultimately put it on the path to today’s rising superpower status.

If ever a new goodwill breakthrough was needed, it is now. US-China relations are at their lowest ebb since China reopened to the world, with disputes boiling over Taiwan, human rights, the oppression of Uyghur Muslims and Beijing’s military build-up.

The Pentagon was recently alarmed by Beijing’s test of a hypersonic weapon, and almost every major strategic decision in Washington is viewed through the prism of a building confrontation with China. Although Biden spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping last week hoping to ease tensions, he is now under political pressure to call a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

It’s a lot for a few rubber paddles and some bouncing plastic balls to fix. But ping-pong has worked before.

Two pairs will try to bridge the geopolitical divide in Texas: Lin Gaoyuan of China will team up with Lily Zhang of the United States, while the US’s Kanak Jha will play with Wang Manyu of China.

Liu Guoliang, who chairs the World Table Tennis Council, described the tournament in Houston as not just a chance to repair relations across the Pacific, but also a triumph over the pandemic.

“These athletes, who are friends with each other, can work together in the competition; so that fans from both countries can cheer them on, opening a new chapter of Ping Pong Diplomacy in this new era,” Liu said.

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