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On a frigid day in Beijing on February 21, 1972, when US President Richard Nixon came down the red-carpeted stairs from Air Force One to shake hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, it was hailed as a world-changing gesture by many.
Nixon’s presence was the first time an American President had stepped foot on Chinese land since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, after more than 20 years of animosity and little communication between the two nations.
The eight-day visit would pave the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties between the world’s richest and most populated countries. It would also transform the international order as we knew it, upsetting the Cold War power balances and playing a role in China’s move from impoverished isolation to a new role as a growing global power broker and economic partner to the US.
But, 50 years later, that milestone is unlikely to be celebrated with much excitement in Beijing or Washington.
Instead, the anniversary of Nixon’s landmark visit falls during a period of deterioration in US-China ties. Many in Washington now regard China as a major economic and military danger, while an increasingly aggressive and patriotic China under President Xi Jinping has reacted to what it perceives as American meddling in its affairs and the region. Tense ties have limited opportunities for collaboration, with the US even refusing to send ambassadors to the Olympics in Beijing earlier this month in protest of China’s human rights record.
Taiwan, the self-governing island, remains a potential flashpoint, with Beijing’s envoy to Washington characterizing it earlier this year as the “largest tinder-box” between the two sides.
As the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit approached, neither Beijing nor Washington hinted at significant commemorations, and any official action will be a long cry from the 30th anniversary when then-President George W. Bush paid a visit to Beijing.
Today’s efforts contrast with the diplomatic fanfare that surrounded the meeting 50 years ago, when Zhou, the skilled statesman of aging Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong, declared “the gate to friendly contact” had been opened as he toasts the American President, First Lady, and their entourage in an elaborate banquet in the Great Hall of the People.