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China versus the US: 50 years of friendships and feuds

On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon used a live television broadcast to inform the world that he was planning an official state visit to China the following year.

So began 50 years of diplomatic relations marked by pluralism, pragmatism and not a little posturing as America moved to separate the world’s most populous nation from the influence of Russia.

The US engagement policy on China was born in 1972, when Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong and proposed ending their decades-long hostility.

The US engagement policy on China was born in 1972, when Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong and proposed ending their decades-long hostility.Credit:AP

Standing before film cameras at the Great Wall, Nixon expressed high hopes that the “walls of ideology or philosophy will not divide peoples in the world”.

Fifty years later, across a meeting table at a summit in Alaska, with the world’s media looking on, diplomats from both sides accused each other of failing to uphold the values they claimed to promote.

Right now, the two nations are locked in open rivalry. The two superpowers vie to best each other in diplomatic clout, economic heft, military might, technology mastery and even climate change reform.

China’s President Xi Jinping has said that “the east is rising and the west is falling”, but in a speech in March, he was clear about the contest: “The United States is the biggest threat to our country’s development and security.”

And US President Joe Biden doubled down in a keynote speech marking his first 100 days in office at the end of April: “We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century.”

As The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age prepare an extensive series of articles focussing on the superpowers’ struggle for world domination, this exclusive nine-minute video takes us on a journey through that 50 year history, stopping at all the high and low points along the way.

Come back tomorrow as we assess who is really coming out on top in the biggest rivalry of this century.

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