The Debate

A Civilizational Clash Isn’t the Way to Frame US Competition With China

Race and civilization are the wrong framing for the U.S.-China competition.

Ankit Panda
A Civilizational Clash Isn’t the Way to Frame US Competition With China
Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Directors of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State aren’t normally headline-makers.

At least that used to be the case, until Kiron Skinner, the head of policy planning, offered a controversial analysis at a public event of what the Trump administration has identified as an era of resurgent great power competition.

Speaking about the challenge that the U.S. perceives from China today – a challenge that is, broadly, appreciated across both major political parties – Skinner traversed dangerous ground.

The fight with China, she said, was “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the U.S. hasn’t had that before”.

That itself isn’t true – but we’ll return to that.

She added, most controversially, that China posed a particularly unique challenge as it represented “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian”.

For the top strategic official in the U.S. Department of State to make race a unit of analysis was shocking – both for what it implied about this U.S. administration’s conception of a great power competition and in its counterproductiveness for U.S. interest.

These remarks reverberated not only among U.S. intellectual circles, drawing criticism from scholars and analysts, but also made it to the highest levels of leadership in China.

President Xi Jinping, at the opening of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC), repudiated the idea that American scholar Samuel Huntington’s infamous “clash of civilizations” thesis – which sees cultural and religious identities as the main drivers of conflict in a post-cold war world – would hold water.

Skinner, by her own telling, has big ambitions in her role.

She said she sought to create something of a “Letter X” for U.S.-China competition, botching a reference to George Kennan’s famous “X Article”, which appeared in Foreign Affairs and set the basis for Washington’s cold war-era containment policy.

In simple terms, the civilisational frame doesn’t apply and, even if it did, its application wouldn’t serve U.S. interests in Asia.

The China-hosted CDAC is an example of how Beijing, instead, zeroes in on the Asian identity, even placing it at the centre of its New Security Concept.

That’s why, for instance, Xi in May 2014 implied that the U.S., as a fundamentally non-Asian nation, has no role in Asia – because, for the Communist Party, Asia was for Asians.

Beyond civilizations, even ideology falls short as a useful unit of analysis for today’s U.S.-China competition. This is one reason that the competitive dynamics fall short of meriting the “cold war 2.0” description.

China’s leadership pays lip service to Marxist ideology (a Western construct), but there’s no particular grand ideological design beyond securing the primacy of the party.

Finally, race is perhaps the most damaging point of focus. Focusing on this point not only obscures that the U.S. itself is no longer a “Caucasian” nation, but also gives credence to the party’s tendency to privilege Han Chinese interests.

Modern China’s members of ethnic minority groups are erased in this simplistic narrative and Washington should be mindful of the great costs borne by the Uygur and Tibetan people, for example, as it pursues competition.

Making race central to a 21st century great power competition will also harm the U.S.’ ability to focus on the serious challenge that does emanate uniquely from China today: Beijing’s normalization and enabling of a global authoritarianism.

By failing to dissociate the Communist Party and modern Chinese authoritarianism from Chinese-ness, American policymakers stand to erase and fail those Chinese who seek to live in a democracy with dignity: the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong, for instance.

The best that can be said of Skinner’s remarks is that she said them publicly, allowing for scrutiny and critique before these views could fully penetrate the strategic underpinnings of the Trump administration.

Uncritically accepting a civilisational clash with China cannot and should not become the underpinning of U.S. foreign policy.

Competition with China is here to stay. Competing effectively will require strategic innovation at a time of relative American decline; not resorting to damaging, clichéd and flawed framings.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning PostIt is republished here with kind permission.