TABLE TENNIS - DIPLOMACY

US, China mark 30th anniversary of 'ping pong diplomacy'

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, visiting Beijing to celebrate 30 years of formal ties between the two countries, attended a table tennis match to commemorate the US table tennis team's tour of China in 1971.

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AFP - Top Chinese and US diplomats applauded 30 years of formal ties on Wednesday and expressed hope that one of the world's key bilateral relationships will stay on an even keel in the years ahead.

Visiting US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made the comments during a high-profile Beijing visit by Negroponte to mark three decades of diplomatic relations.

"Looking back, there have been some twists and turns in this relationship, but the China-US relationship has on the whole moved forward," Yang told Negroponte.

"I hope the next 30 years will see even greater growth in the China-US relationship, to make a more important contribution to peace, stability, development, and harmony in our region and the world at large."

Negroponte told Yang ties "have progressed enormously since 1979".

"Both the breadth and the depth of the relationship have reached levels that simply could not have been imagined 30 years ago," he said.

The two countries established formal ties on January 1, 1979, when the United States switched diplomatic recognition to communist-ruled China, ending decades of support for the Nationalist Chinese government of Taiwan.

Earlier in the day, after a friendly table tennis match between Chinese and US teams, Negroponte told reporters the Sino-US relationship "will only get better" in the next 30 years.

The match was held to commemorate the US table tennis team's tour of China in 1971.

The so-called "ping pong diplomacy" helped soften a Cold War estrangement, eventually leading to formal ties.

Former players from the US and Chinese teams in 1971 were present at the match, as were current players from both countries.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been due to attend the commemorative events in her last trip abroad before the end of US President George W. Bush's term.

President-elect Barack Obama will be inaugurated on January 20.

But Rice cancelled to focus on the Middle East conflict, sending Negroponte instead.

The visit was partly intended as a farewell from the Bush administration, recognising the importance of China to the United States.

However, Negroponte was expected to discuss current issues of global concern such as the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran, as well as the economic crisis.

"North Korea, Iran... it's a broad relationship. I'm sure they'll talk about economics as well," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said late on Tuesday as he outlined Negroponte's agenda.

Chinese President Hu Jintao also spoke warmly of China's relationship with the United States in a phone chat with Bush this week, saying the two sides should stick to "a relationship characterised by constructive cooperation".

Liu Weidong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the top government think-tank, said there had been much progress in relations in the past 30 years but warned problems remained.

"There's a lack of strategic mutual trust between the two sides... They have different values," he said.

"The US was worried about whether China's rise was peaceful and now it is worried about whether China can remain peaceful after it rises," he said.

The most stubborn problem between the two sides has been continued US military sales to Taiwan, which China firmly opposes.

Taiwan and China have been estranged since the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to the communists.

Trade also remains a source of tension, with the United States accusing China of unfairly keeping its currency's value low for the benefit of its exporters, while differences over human rights have caused other flare-ups.

Negroponte was due to meet with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and address foreign reporters on Thursday, before heading back to the United States.

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