In his classic The United States and China, John Fairbank gave us a glimpse of the immensely complex love-hate relationship between the two countries, one that defies simple summary: it is neither a Huntingtonian clash of civilisations nor just another case of great power rivalry.
Around the time President Donald "America First" Trump burst onto the international scene, Graham Allison raised the spectre of war between the two countries, which he said were caught in a "Thucydides Trap".
However, it is possible to avoid the Thucydides trap with the judicious application of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang. While the concept of yin and yang may seem esoteric to those outside the Eastern tradition, the underlying principle is universal. Yin and yang are two complementary forces in nature - one passive, the other active - that should wisely be kept in balance, for each force restrains, but also supports, the other. An excess of either yin or yang is inimical to the welfare of any system, be it human physiology, the liberal order, world trade, investment or knowledge sharing.
Sustained conflict with the aim of destroying one's rival can only lead to mutual decline. To borrow an analogy from naturalistic Chinese medicine, it is unhealthy when either yin or yang is weak, and the other becomes dominant.
An imbalance upsets homeostasis, disrupts natural flows in the body, and might lead to disease. Chinese medical therapy consists of balancing yin and yang. This profound insight into the dynamics of all life and phenomena has brought healing and health to untold millions through the ages.
Looking at the world through the lens of yin and yang, it is not hard to see America, like much of the West, is yang in nature. It is steeped in the culture of wide personal freedom and transparent governance, and it is impatient for quick solutions to problems.
The East, exemplified by China, is yin. It prizes communitarianism over individual freedom and is more willing to accept - and has sometimes thrived under - benevolent authoritarian rule. It makes a virtue of flexibility, is less governed by rigid rules than by moral precepts, and has the patience to wait - many decades if necessary - to achieve strategic goals.
Evidently, the East and the West have different values, as well as political and social ideologies. Yet, there is no necessity, neither is it desirable, for either yin or yang to dominate or prevail. Without the support and restraining influence of either force, a system will eventually falter, as America might have begun to in the last two decades.
This is the core aspect of a yin-yang balance. It is the reason China has repeatedly declared that it has no wish to export its system of governance, and that it will not tolerate any preaching of the virtues of liberal democracy that have no roots in China, and likely never will.
Nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they are unlikely to be deployed in an all-out military clash that ends in mutual destruction. Instead, a trade war broke out after Trump seized the US presidency on a wave of popular discontent over livelihoods he claimed had been hurt by China.
The trade war is but a cover for a wider conflict on many fronts - technology, financial markets, military superiority and soft power over developing nations. At stake is the continued viability of the US economy, which has become dependent on debt built on the basis of the dollar as the world's main trading and reserve currency.
Moreover, the technological leadership of the US - great internet companies like Amazon and Apple, and aerospace giants like Boeing and Lockheed - is being challenged by China. Alibaba and Huawei are among a fast-growing list of Chinese companies offering advanced technologies from high-speed transit to artificial intelligence.
As a result, American paranoia about the "yellow peril" has reared its head again; amid fears that Chinese are somehow robbing Americans of decent livings, Americans from opposite ends of the political spectrum are closing ranks against China. Recently, Texas senator Ted Cruz was close to hysteria about this imagined threat to Western civilisation.
Over the long term, this new cold war will destroy economic value and cripple the very liberal world order the US had played a major role in creating, an order that has supported unparalleled advances in global prosperity in the last seven decades.
As Wang Gungwu points out in his new book China Reconnects : "Xi Jinping and his colleagues are not so foolish to try to replace the United States as a dominant force. Newly rising powers like China and India could at best … persuade a less confident American superpower that multi-polarity would guarantee America's place in world affairs … If they fail, the defensive superpower would refuse to accept a lesser hegemony."
The sensible solution is for China and the US to coexist, compete fairly with each other, and to cooperate when it benefits both sides and the rest of the world. When yin and yang are in balance, China and the US would be able to play their parts constructively.
The US could continue to prevail on China to engage in fairer trade practices and show greater tolerance for well-meaning dissidents who are not out to undermine the Communist Party. It could use its influence with Southeast Asian nations to resolve territorial claims in the South China Sea through negotiations.
An increasingly influential China could moderate the US penchant for trampling on the sovereignty of other nations through means such as regime change. It could call the US out on its recalcitrance about the Paris climate accord and other global issues. China leapfrogging the US in 5G networks, supercomputing and space satellite launches could only strengthen the US' resolve to stay fighting fit.
The principle of yin and yang is not that far from the concept of checks and balances in governance. Healthy contention between yin and yang is also consistent with the belief in the virtue of business competition.
For China and the US to ignore this wisdom is to imperil the world, and to jeopardise the liberal order that past world leaders painstakingly built for mankind.
Hong Hai, a former dean of the business school at Nanyang Technological University and a past member of the Singapore Parliament, is author of the forthcoming The Rule of Culture: Corporate and State Governance in China and East Asia
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