The year after President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 'opening to China,' the Philadelphia Orchestra arrived in Beijing in his footsteps.
Nixon had played the China card, shifting the balance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The first American orchestra to visit Communist-ruled China, along with 'ping-pong diplomacy'--exchanges of table tennis players--began the people-to-people contacts that underpinned the strategic goals of the new U.S.-China relationship.
The Philadelphia Orchestra is back. This week it is visiting Changsha and Shenzhen after playing to packed houses in Beijing, a symbol of the flourishing ties between two countries whose destinies are now deeply entwined through music and sport as well as massive volumes of trade and investment, and educational exchanges.
Yet, at the same time, the geopolitical foundations of the relationship forged during the Nixon era are crumbling.
This turn of history was dramatically illustrated last Wednesday when, as the Philadelphia Orchestra was preparing for its opening night at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, were sealing a $400 billion contract in Shanghai to supply Russian gas.
It was one of the largest commercial agreements of all time. But as they threw back thimble-sized glasses of white liquor to celebrate their outsized deal, it was clear that the two leaders were playing a strategic card against America, too.
Both leaders are powerful and charismatic. Both bridle at the U.S.-dominated global order, and profess a desire to create a 'multipolar' world. Mr. Putin, having been spurned by the West, is looking east to China. Mr. Xi is only too happy to receive his advances.
To be sure, their collaboration has limits. Behind displays of Sino-Russian solidarity lurks a deep mutual suspicion.
Yet the scene in Shanghai underscored a profound shift in China's foreign policy as it challenges the legacy of the Cold War-era.
The China that Nixon visited under Mao Zedong was content for America to dominate in Asia, a region it had lorded over for several millenniums. It had little choice. Back then, China was poor and weak. And it was desperate for the benefits that America had to offer, from capital and technology to management know-how.
Now China is rich--by some measures it has already overtaken America as the world's largest economy. And, at long last, it's strong enough to dispute America's primacy in Asia.
That's the background to a recent string of assertive Chinese moves in Asia, from setting up an Air Defense Identification Zone in November last year over the East China Sea, including islands it disputes with Japan, to parking an oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam last month.
China is bent on challenging the Cold War architecture that America built in Asia to assure its hegemony--one that Mao's China reluctantly accepted in return for Nixon's visit that led to diplomatic relations.
It is doing this in several ways: By investing in a powerful military that's now capable of thwarting U.S. armed forces in Asia to some extent; by seeking to undermine the network of U.S. alliances in the region, most crucially the one with Japan, through aggressive tactics that sow doubts about whether America really is ready to risk war to stand up for its friends; and by forging new alignments of its own, including one with Mr. Putin's Russia.
But the big question is this: now that the strategic basis of the U.S.-China relationship has altered so fundamentally, what will happen to the rest of it? In other words, how safe are the people-to-people ties?
The historian Niall Ferguson coined the term 'Chimerica' to express the symbiotic relationship between the two powers. China is now reckoned to be a $300 billion market for U.S. companies, measured by U.S. exports and sales in the country, according to a report this year by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. By far the biggest group of foreign students in the U.S. is from China--235,597 last year, more than a quarter of the total.
China's desire for U.S. technology is undiminished. Nor can it continue its global rise without America's open markets.
Yet nationalism is a powerful force. And it can't be taken for granted that people-to-people ties are strong enough, on their own, to hold the relationship together.
China's furious reaction last week to the indictment by the U.S. Justice Department of five Chinese military officers, alleging they hacked U.S. companies' computers to steal trade secrets, is an example of how quickly the commercial relationship can go awry now that the strategic relationship has become so unmoored and mutual trust is failing.
Already, friction over cybersecurity has hurt sales for companies like Cisco Systems Inc. and International Business Machines Corp.
Nixon sent the Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing for a good reason. Despite the strains of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, drifting into the Beijing night air last Thursday, people-to-people ties now rest on a fragile foundation.