Fifty years ago, Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon showed their understanding of the importance of pragmatism when they met for a summit in Beijing that was a defining moment in modern history. The visit was televised internationally, the idea of an avowed opponent of communism meeting the leader of the largest communist nation inconceivable in the depths of the Cold War. Decades of animosity between two of the world’s most influential nations was set aside and a process of establishing relations began. At a time when links between China and the United States are fraught, wise thinking and political will are again needed to calm tensions and put ties back on a firm footing. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, saw benefit in improving relations with all countries, no matter what their ideology. Mao and then premier Zhou Enlai similarly saw advantage in secret overtures from the American side for talks and sent positive signals. Images of Mao and Nixon shaking hands and the US president and Zhou toasting one another at a banquet became symbols of the week-long event and helped shift popular opinion. Mao saw in the US a strong ally to counter conflicts with the Soviet Union and India. Moscow also featured among Nixon’s motives, rapprochement with Beijing being perceived as giving leverage in negotiations to improve ties. The American leader wanted Chinese help to end the Vietnam war on favourable terms. He was seeking re-election; being hailed as a great statesman was part of his strategy. Within the year, Washington and Moscow had forged an arms pact, Nixon had won a second presidential term and a peace treaty with Vietnam was signed. For Mao, the visit marked the hastening of the end of international isolation, a process that three months earlier had been given impetus when the United Nations had switched recognition of China to Beijing by expelling Taipei, despite the efforts of Washington. The island was a crucial obstacle in the normalisation of Sino-US ties and the landmark outcome of Nixon’s visit, the Shanghai Communique, in which the US accepted that there was only one China, spurred diplomacy. Seven years and two agreements later, full diplomatic relations with the US were established. Mao and Nixon could not have foreseen the reforms initiated in 1978 by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that have made China an economic powerhouse. Taiwan is a central part of American President Joe Biden ’s efforts to counter Beijing along with trade, technology and military superiority that threaten regional harmony. The manner in which Mao and Nixon set aside disputes 50 years ago cannot be a blueprint for improving ties. But as then, a leader with determination and political wisdom can make a difference.