Friday, December 30, 2005

Join with your opponent

My tai chi teacher Yang Jun said last night that you should ‘join with your opponent’ to respond to a punch. He showed how hard it is to meet a punch head-on; your timing has to be very good, and you have to yield in just the right way to absorb the force and turn it away without hurting yourself. (He could do it easily, of course.) It’s better to swing your arm down across the direction of the strike, like a propeller in front of your body. Once you make contact, your arm naturally spirals around your opponent’s forearm, swinging it out of the way.

Master Yang explained that the philosophy of ‘joining with your opponent’ before attacking was part of Chinese culture. It’s the yin/yang philosophy: if you want to push, start by pulling; if you want to go horizontally, start in the vertical. This attitude is deeply ingrained in tai chi, which is a ‘soft’ martial art; one of its guiding images is that the energy of a master is like ‘steel wrapped in cotton’.

These ideas seemed applicable to the long-term geopolitical contest between the United States and China. The increasingly close economic ties between the two countries make a war seem implausible. However, let’s just imagine that China sees the US as an opponent. Its current deep engagement with the US economy, through selling its products and buying US debt, could be seen as intertwining itself with its opponent. If China needs to respond later, it will know exactly where to push.

The United States’ geopolitical style, by contrast, is hard. It eschews contact with states it opposes (Iran, North Korea, Cuba). When it does engage, it does so only as a last resort, and then deploys full frontal force, to an overwhelming and disproportionate degree (cf. the Powell Doctrine).