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People-to-People Diplomacy in China-Japan Relations

Mar 20 , 2015

International relations are traditionally conducted by national leaders, government officials, and diplomats. The power of citizen exchanges, or “people-to-people diplomacy,” is often underestimated. People-to-people diplomacy, as part of public diplomacy, complements traditional and formal diplomacy. It has a significant impact on relations between nations since bilateral relations are not sustainable without solid public support.

It is well-known that the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” of 1971 helped pave the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China the following year. Less talked about is the indirect role Japan played in the process. Both Chinese and American Ping-Pong players were attending the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan at the time. When American player Glenn Cowan missed him team’s bus, he was invited to ride with the Chinese players. His conversation and gift exchanges with Chinese player Zhuang Zedong are today household stories. The Ping-Pong diplomacy that began in Japan led to the normalization of U.S.-China relations.

Amidst the tense political relations between Japan and China today, attention has focused on national leaders and how they help or hinder relations. Many blame either Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s revisionist views and hardline policies or President Xi Jinping’s tough style and assertive diplomacy for the deterioration of bilateral relations. They assume that only national leaders and politicians matter in international relations. Such perspectives overlook the power of people-to-people diplomacy and are therefore detrimental to improving relations.

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