China-US rivalry not a clash of civilizations

By Song Wei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/12 19:03:40

Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the US Department of State, argued on April 29 that China-US competition is a "clash of civilizations." This has triggered dissenting voices in the US as well as internationally.

Skinner described competition with China as, "a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn't had that before." She said "when we think about the Soviet Union and that competition [the Cold War], in a way, it was a fight within the Western family," but China "poses a unique challenge because the regime in Beijing isn't a child of Western philosophy and history."

Skinner's provocative statement can hardly stand scrutiny. As current China-US ties are getting more intense, escalating disputes between the two sides into a clash of civilizations will only worsen the relations. It will not help the US formulate reasonable policies toward China and will harm both countries' interests in the long run.

Since the end of the Cold War, competition and cooperation have coexisted in China-US relations, with cooperation being dominant part. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China and the US lost their strategic base of a quasi alliance. However, the two still maintained good momentum in cooperation. Their economic and trade relations, for example, are regarded as the ballast stone for bilateral ties. China and the US also actively cooperate in combating international terrorism and UN peacekeeping mission.

There have been disputes between China and the US, including trade disputes, the South China Sea issue and the Taiwan question. This is natural because the two countries' interests differ on these issues. Washington has all kinds of conflicts even with its allies. As such, China-US relations were positive and healthy for quite a while after the end of the Cold War.

However, ties between Beijing and Washington have been tense since 2010. The main reason was that Washington started to regard Beijing as its strategic rival. Before 2010, the US did not believe China's national strength could pose a threat to it, nor did it think China was a challenge to the US-led international order. 

But since China surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy in 2010, US political elites started to worry that Beijing could challenge Washington's status and the international order.

China has explained a lot on this. On one hand, China's GDP accounts for around 60 percent of that of the US', and the gap may even be larger between the two countries when it comes to comprehensive strength. So, China is not a threat to the US' position of strength. On the other hand, China is building and protecting the international order instead of challenging it. China benefits from free trade and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Although the US labels China a strategic competitor, this is normal in political games among major powers. A rival is not necessarily an enemy. 

Enemies fight in cutthroat competitions, strategic rivals compete for power and interests. But Skinner's statement - a so-called "clash of civilizations" - refers to a struggle between enemies rather than rivals. Because different civilizations mean different outlooks on the world, different social beliefs and different lifestyles.

Skinner's vague statements imply that she has separated civilizations from ideologies. She thinks the US-Soviet Union rivalry was not a clash of civilizations. But in fact, it included competition on status, international order, as well as ideological disputes. 

There are undoubtedly ideological disputes between Beijing and Washington. If she puts ideologies on a par with civilizations, she would not distinguish the Cold War from China-US competition.

Consequently, Skinner's "clash of civilizations" should be interpreted as conflict between two completely different perspectives on the world, social beliefs and different lifestyles. In this context, China-US competition does not comply with characteristics of clash of civilizations. Despite different ideologies, there is no irreconcilable contradiction on civilizations between the two.

China's traditional culture including Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism all prefer to separate religion from public life, oppose the unification of the church and state, and is not against other civilizations. 

Moreover, after more than 40 years of reform and opening-up, China and the US have many things in common. Today, economic globalization has profoundly influence on all aspects of Chinese people's life. American culture and lifestyle are welcomed in China. 

Indeed, there are differences between Chinese and American culture, but the two complement rather than oppose each other.

For example, China may need more individualism to boost its society's vitality, while the US needs more collectivism to eliminate increasingly tense disputes among different social class and ethnic groups. Labeling China-US competition as "a clash of civilizations" will only stir up anti-China sentiment. It cannot help the two countries resolve their disputes.

The author is research fellow at the National Academy of Development and Strategy and professor at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China.


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