The I Ching has been a foundational text of Chinese philosophy for thousands of years and continues to inform China’s geopolitical strategy to this day. Photo: SCMP
by Lub Bun Chong
by Lub Bun Chong

How the I Ching informs China’s harmonious pursuit of geopolitical strategy

  • The Chinese dream, belt and road, Taiwan policy and vaccine diplomacy all seek to preserve harmony, a key notion in the I Ching
  • The US would do well to realise that China’s growing clout necessitates an accommodating shift, not a breakdown, in the global balance
In 1972, then-US president Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in China. Buoyed by his success in winning over a former adversary, he labelled this trip as “the week that changed the world”. Little did Nixon realise the far-reaching changes that this trip would have on China, US-China relations and the world.

The Americans and Chinese have vastly different notions of “change”, and nowhere is this more evident than their narratives. The United States is adamant that China is its biggest threat, whereas China is adamant in equal measure that it does not intend to displace the US.

The US narrative is not surprising – it applies the perspective that it knows best to manage China’s rise. In this regard, there are well-researched schools of thought that point to a likely or inevitable conflict. Examples of these include the Thucydides Trap, popularised by Harvard’s Graham Allison, and offensive realism, promoted by scholars such as John Mearsheimer.
In contrast, President Xi Jinping rejects the Thucydides Trap, advocating instead for “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”.
To state the obvious, the Chinese perspective is shaped at its core by Chinese history and philosophy, as opposed to Western history and philosophy. For thousands of years, the Chinese have looked to the I Ching as a venerable source of wisdom to discern the ever-changing world, hence it is also known as the “Classic of Changes”.

As the first of the ancient Chinese classics, the I Ching had a profound influence on Confucianism and Taoism, and it is still widely consulted today.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong welcomes US president Richard Nixon on February 22, 1972, in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua
In the past, Xi has quoted from the I Ching in advocating for mankind to live in harmony with the environment. In fact, harmony is one of the key notions in the I Ching, and the causality relationship for harmony is a continuous cycle of change and balance.
China’s imperatives, whether big or small, are often responses to restore or maintain harmony. The “ Chinese dream” is, in Xi’s words, the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, and it embodies the aspiration of a people to find harmony by bringing closure to China’s “century of humiliation”.
Touted as the “project of the century”, Xi has called the Belt and Road Initiative “a big family of harmonious coexistence”. The strategic ambiguity of the one-China policy for Taiwan is intended to maintain harmony, and China’s actions are responses to restore strategic ambiguity. China’s vaccine diplomacy seeks to restore harmony by redressing the inequitable global distribution of vaccine.


Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

The philosophical virtue of harmony is all well and good, but geopolitics is a complex tactical endeavour to secure strategic advantages, and every country has an agenda. China is no exception, but its underlying approach is not predicated on a linear “win-lose” paradigm.

China’s aggression is often cited by the US as a threat to the international order. Indeed, some of China’s actions are, quite understandably, a source of concern to the US and the West. Further, the turnaround of China’s diplomatic persona from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide your strength, bide your time” to the current “ wolf warrior diplomacy” tactics have only served to exacerbate international tensions.
However, it seems unwise for China to threaten the very same international order that has nurtured it and, most importantly, underpins the Chinese dream and the Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s interest lies in a thriving multipolar international order. Its growing clout necessitates an accommodating shift, not a breakdown, in the global balance. Displacing the US will be the surest way for China to isolate itself, and create imbalance.


Belt and Road Initiative explained

Belt and Road Initiative explained
For the perils of isolation, China need only to look at its own triumphs and tragedies from the Silk Road and the arrival of Buddhism more than 2,000 years ago to the “century of humiliation” less than 200 years ago.

On the other hand, the US sees itself in the mirror when it looks at China’s rise. The prospects of being on the wrong end of a powerful China, perceived or otherwise, are of such grave concern that it must be avoided at all costs.

To be sure, the world must also be thankful for the many contributions of the US and the West to humanity. This is a point that even China cannot dispute, despite being on the wrong end of a powerful Western alliance during the “ century of humiliation”.

At the end of the day, US-China engagement should not be demarcated by a line in the middle but rather a continuous cycle of harmony that is in balance with a changing geopolitical environment.

The Jesuit missionaries in China were keen students of the I Ching in the 17th century and are credited with bringing the I Ching to the West. More than a century later, Bob Dylan was quoted as describing the I Ching as “the only thing that is amazingly true, period”.

Perhaps US President Joe Biden should consider reading the I Ching and reassess the changing geopolitical landscape.

Lub Bun Chong is a partner of C Consultancy and Helios Strategic Advisors, and the author of “Managing a Chinese Partner: Insights From Four Global Companies”