The yin and yang of China: President Obama should take a balanced approach

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Former Gov. Mitt Romney adjusted many of his positions during his marathon campaign for the presidency, but one remained stubbornly unchanged: On his first day of office he would declare China a currency manipulator.

But Mr. Romney won't be taking office on Inauguration Day, which comes exactly three weeks before the Year of the Snake begins in the People's Republic of China. Instead, Barack Obama will take the oath and, if he is shrewd and thinking strategically, open a new era of relations between these global superpowers.

Perhaps he should use the first day of his second term to begin a serious internal debate to reshape the American approach to China and alter U.S. priorities as he looks ahead to another challenging four years of managing relations with what for centuries was known as the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese Daoist philosophy holds that the Year of the Snake's dominant element is water, a yin element whose character is inward-looking, passive and serene, but which also can become active and destructive.

The president knows that we Americans are justly proud of our history, our traditions and our achievements. What we have accomplished in just over 200 years is staggering: a democratic republic whose founding philosophy captures the aspirations of the world's citizens, and of our own; a record of world leadership that is far from unblemished but whose high points are sobering and honorable.

But he should know, too, that the Chinese are equally proud of their history, traditions and achievements. What they have accomplished in 4,000 years is likewise impressive: a culture that prized sage-kings (though it was not always ruled by wise men), one of the world's oldest writing systems, a meritocratic governing class of scholars dedicated to humane Confucian values, as well as the usual litany of technological advances that has become a cliche but is mostly accurate.

The times of mass starvation and destruction, natural and man-made, and the abuses of human rights do not alter these facts. Any country that has been around for a while acquires some tarnish.

The most sensible policy toward China ought to take into account these realities. Tough talk and isolation are not a combination likely to achieve our national goals.

Northeastern Asia is one of the most volatile places in the world, and if America wants to live up to its ideals of promoting peace it will have to make China a partner. The United States cannot reasonably ask for China's help with North Korea or expect productive dialogue about Taiwan or our important alliance with Japan or about Tibet or about human rights or about anything else if the Chinese sense an unwillingness to find common ground or respect their culture. U.S. domestic interests are no less critical: The trade imbalance and what candidate Romney called "currency manipulation" are serious concerns for all Americans, not to mention whatever increases in our own defense spending seem dictated by China's enormous army and growing navy.

One other thought as President Obama continues to ponder the best ways to engage China: The 4,000 years of Chinese history mentioned above is a conservative figure. There are many in and out of China whose dating would raise that number by another thousand years, maybe more. Our comparative histories almost guarantee a diametrically opposed view of historical time. Put another way, our collective national patiences are in direct proportion to the lengths of our histories.

Chinese civilization was admired throughout the Far East for centuries. One dynasty alone, the Zhou, lasted 800 years. The phrase we hear and see in the American media so often -- "China's rise" -- must sound quaint to a people who can claim a historical position of dominance and confidence similar to what Henry Luce in 1945 dared call "The American Century." The fortunes of nations can be cyclical and sometimes these cycles take place over hundreds of years, not a mere 200. The Chinese cannot be at all surprised to find themselves back among the world's powers, rightly seeking respect and a voice.

This Year of the Snake may well be a time when President Obama sometimes will need to adopt a more aggressive yang stance toward China, but he would be well advised to remember that the Daoists believe balance and peace are achieved only when yin and yang are held in harmony.


Thomas B. Trethaway is co-head of humanities and social sciences for The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. (


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