By Tiffany Chen
The views expressed reflect the opinions of the contributor and are not necessarily those of THG.
Recently, Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the State Department, categorized the dispute between China and the U.S. as a “clash of civilizations,” reviving the famous argument by Samuel. P. Huntington and hinting at the inevitability of the conflict. According to Skinner, the fight between these two great powers is especially unique considering “this is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology …[which] the United States hasn’t had before.” Noting how the regime in Beijing “isn’t a child of Western philosophy and history” while Karl Marx had a significant influence on the Soviet Union, Skinner categorized Cold War tension as a “fight within the Western family” and labeled China as the first non-Caucasian great power competitor of the United States.
Civilizations, according to dictionary.com, is “an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.” Huntington himself also defined the term civilization with broad concepts such as language, history, religion, customs, and institutions. In this sense, China and the United States are undoubtedly different. Mandarin versus English, Christianity versus Atheism, Chinese Dynasties versus American colonies, and lastly, communism versus democracy; this list goes on and on. Nevertheless, the incompatibility of the two civilizations and the inevitability of the clash Skinner hinted simply does not exist.
Abraham Denmark, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia said that Skinner’s comments reflected a “fundamental misunderstanding of both China itself and the challenges we face.” Indeed, this emphasis on the clash between the two civilizations ignores the true nature of the dispute. Till now, a majority of the conflicts between the United States and China lies in the area of trade. Starting from 2010, as China became the World’s Second-Largest Economy, the economic tension between the two nations has escalated. Soon after, in an essay for Foreign Policy, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for “increased investments” in Asia to counter China’s growing clout. As trade between the two nations increased, the U.S. trade deficit with China became an alarming issue, which escalated to its extremes when the Trump administration announced a series of tariffs on Chinese imports, beginning a U.S.-China Trade War. His administration also claimed to block Chinese tech investments because “we can’t let people steal.”
However, it is the connection and interdependence of the two nations’ economies that directly refutes Skinner’s argument of an inevitable clash between two incompatible civilizations. When China opened its economic borders, American firms the action “built China into their supply chains,” benefiting from the cheap labor and the vastness of the Chinese market. These American investments allowed the Chinese to gain technological expertise. Even after China became the World’s Second-Largest Economy, its purchase of American bonds still strengthened the interdependence between the two economies. Simply put, both nations need one another.
In fact, what Trump and other politicians used as their rationale for the trade war against China—trade deficit and the theft of intellectual property—is the very proof of why we do not have a clash of civilization. If the two civilizations were really so contradictory, trade and technological transactions would not have happened. People would then see two nations shielding themselves from the influence of its opposition, lacking interaction, not to mention cooperation. It is the very cooperation between the two nations that proves why China and the United States do not have a clash of civilizations.
In her argument, Skinner classified the Cold War conflict with the USSR as “a huge fight within the Western family,” claiming that the conflict with China is the first time that the US will face a great power with a dramatically different ideology. Interestingly, the history of the Cold War says otherwise. During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire” based on the ideological differences between the US and the USSR. And yet according to Skinner, this conflict did not include a major ideological difference.
Furthermore, during the Cold War, the USSR closed its markets, blocking off any economic relations with the U.S.. Nor did the U.S. need the market from Soviet Union. In addition to the lack of interconnection, the two nations not only tried to shield its citizens from the impact of the other, but tried to limit its opposition’s influence worldwide. Compared to the complicated ties between China and the U.S. today, if there was a clash of civilization, then the Cold War conflict fits Skinner’s definition better. Well, except for the “non-Caucasian competitor” part, of course.
The question now is why did people from both sides sense such a huge tension between China and the United States. Jeffrey Sachs, famous American economist, believes that the U.S. is not mentally ready to accept a multi-polarized world, causing tension, hatred, and misunderstandings between the two nations. It is American leaders’ and politicians’ reluctance to accept the fact that China now emerged as a power that can potentially threaten the United States that caused the escalation of conflicts, not a clash of civilizations or ideologies.
Responding through portraying China as the U.S.’ enemy (similar to how it described the USSR as the “evil empire” during the Cold War), the U.S. government is stirring up hatred and promoting misunderstandings between the two nations. Even though this seems to justify its hostile actions towards China, a continuously escalating conflict between these two great powers can do more harm than good. The interdependence between China and the United States is the key to maintaining stability and sustainable development. Instead of branding the dispute as an inevitable “clash of civilization” and limiting interactions between scholars and businessmen, further encouraging interconnection of the two cultures should be the key. The United States and China do not have a clash of civilizations, and the analysis of current interdependent ties and the enhancement of interrelationship between citizens from all levels will prove just that.