The Chinese were writing poems long before Columbus set foot on American soil, long before the British barons forced Bad King John to sign the Magna Carta, and long before the Founding Fathers embarked on a brave, new adventure in democracy.
But China’s path has been different from that of the Western World. While we in the West have focused on individual freedom and social justice, the vastness and diversity of the Orient have made other concerns paramount, concerns such as discipline and order – often at the expense of personal freedom.
With such basic differences to contend with, China and the United States are necessarily uncomfortable bedfellows. But bedfellows they are. And while common ground may be hard to find, common interests are all too obvious.
It takes uncommon wisdom to recognize the implications of this push-you-pull-you relationship.
And I am comforted by the uncommon wisdom displayed by President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is on a historic visit to the United States.
Less sophisticated leaders might have exploited the occasion to “play to their base,” to incite xenophobia and tribalism among their more primitive political supporters. But, mercifully, that is not China’s way. And that is not President Obama’s way.
Obama lives in a political world that is not of his own making. The financial and commercial ties that bind the economies of America and China together were not forged by his administration. Those ties are the legacy of previous presidents – George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and as far back as Richard Nixon.
To rail against the policies of the past would be pointless. As Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet, so aptly observed:
The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on. Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
The Chinese people are frustratingly unlikely to enjoy democracy, as we know it, in our lifetime. And their trade tactics and currency manipulation can be infuriatingly unfair – from our perspective.
There is much for Americans and Chinese politicians to squabble over – if they choose to focus on their differences.
But that would be counterproductive.
At this time in history, the wise path is toward cooperation and mutual respect, even if complete agreement is beyond our reach. And that seems to be where the two mighty nations are heading. As Xi’s senior foreign policy adviser, Yang Jiechi, told the Associated Press:
The two presidents agreed to build a new model of major country relationship between China and the United States based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation. We have to stay each other’s partners, not rivals.
In an age of swagger and bluster, where right-wing hawks so often hog center stage, such eminently reasonable words are sweet music – to my ears anyway.