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The foundations of today's world

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James Reynolds | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

In the history of the last century, some years immediately stand out: 1914, 1917, 1918, 1939, 1945, 1968, 1989.

In retrospect, it may be worth having another look at a five-month period from 1978 to 1979. During this short time, a number of events laid the foundations for the way the world works today.

Deng Xiaoping 01/01/1978  • 18 December 1978:
China's leader Deng Xiaoping announces the reform and opening up of China's economy. At the time, the announcement receives little notice in the West. But it marks the beginning of the transformation of China from an isolated agrarian society into a global superpower.

Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping (L) shown in a a photo dated 31 January 1979 applauding with US President Jimmy Carter after signing three agreements for Sino-US cooperation in Science and Technology, Culture and Consular Affairs in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. ARNOLD SACHS/AFP/Getty Images  • 1 January 1979:
The United States and China re-establish formal diplomatic relations after US President Jimmy Carter switches recognition to Beijing from Taipei. The relationship between these two countries may define the course of the 21st century.

Photograph of the crowds in Tehran  • 1 February 1979:
Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran, marking the no-turning-back point of the Iranian Revolution.
Relations between Iran and the West come to dominate events for 30 years, provoking the downfall of one US President (Carter) and the biggest crisis of another (the Iran-Contra affair in the Reagan years).

Afghan fighters  • 14 April 1979:
The Afghan government requests helicopters from the USSR. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union invades. The fighters who resist Soviet forces eventually go on to form the nucleus of the Taleban.

Thatcher  • 4 May 1979:
Margaret Thatcher is elected prime minister of the UK. Her election starts to shift the ground of Western politics and foreshadows the election a year later of the US President Ronald Reagan. The current UK and US leaders acknowledge their debt to the Thatcher-Reagan revolution.

Today marks another anniversary from that five-month period.

Members of an artillery unit of the Vietnamese armed forces resist the Chinese invaders along the 230km border line of the province Lang Son with China on February 23, 1979. STR/AFP/Getty Images

  • 17 February 1979:
China invades North Vietnam and fights a brief border war. This conflict is inconclusive. But, in retrospect, it marks the last time that China sends troops into a foreign country in anger. This anniversary has barely been marked in China (when asked about it, a foreign ministry official told a briefing that China and Vietnam experienced "an unhappy part of history").


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