Fifty years to the month after Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China to end a generation of hostility between Washington and Beijing, another American official, Wendy Sherman, was in China, this time in an attempt to keep the badly tattered relationship from going off the rails entirely.

Much has changed in the intervening half century. In 1971, the United States was the world’s most powerful country and China one of its poorest. Today, China is the second largest economy and a rival for world power.

In hindsight, Kissinger’s job was relatively easy. President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, after all, had Chairman Mao Zedong behind him. Mao paved the way by inviting the American table tennis team to visit, and the slogan was “Friendship first, competition second.”