China Power

No, There Is No US-China ‘Clash of Civilizations’

It’s important to resist oversimplified narratives about U.S.-China relations.

Dingding Chen
By Dingding Chen and Junyang Hu for
No, There Is No US-China ‘Clash of Civilizations’
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

The world has changed dramatically over the past few decades and is trending today toward greater complexity and diversity. The popular “clash of civilizations” theory proposed by Samuel P. Huntington is somewhat too simple for modern society. However, this thought is now coming back to life, and might even be unilaterally implemented into policy practice in the United States toward China. Kiron Skinner, the U.S. State Department’s policy planning head, has reignited this discussion with her recent observation that China is “not Caucasian” at a recent event. Her broader remarks made clear that the U.S. State Department taking pains to prepare for a “clash of civilizations” with China.

From once a “economic competitor” to now a rival on the level of civilization, what is behind these perceptions in the U.S. bureaucracy toward China?

To understand that, it is first necessary to get a taste of the policymakers in the American government today. These practitioners who cope with China on a day-to-day basis at both the policy and implementation levels see China as more energetic, assertive, and less reserved over the past few years. But they are missing memories of a time when China was weak and poor, mainly due to the process of internal generational replacement.

As Douglas Paal explained in a commentary last year, “those with experience with pre-reform China have retired and been replaced by much younger officials with no personal memory of the ‘three communiqués’ that are the foundation of US-China relations.” Consequently, the lack of appreciation in their counterparts leads otherwise responsible American officials to impatience along with insecurity. China’s rise keeps haunting their minds, making them thirst for a negative-oriented label to defend against this potential “turnover.” The term “clash of civilizations,” therefore, is not only a simplified explanation for the intricate status quo, but also a justification thereof and a defense mechanism.

There will not be a clash of civilizations between the United States and China.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

First, the concept of a “clash of civilizations” was misinterpreted by Skinner. What Huntington argued is to perceive the global civilizations from the perspective of world politics, instead of using the viewpoint of civilizations to discuss a “clash” or “conflict.” In other words, the thrust behind “clash of civilizations” is nothing but to categorize the world political structure based on different civilizations or cultures as we embarked into the post-Cold-War era. The Chinese scholar Luo Liang unscrambles the idea that countries born with the same civilization can establish a world order that is generally recognized; on the contrary, among countries without blood relationship, plenty of roadblocks remain.

As a case in point, at the end of World War II, two camps — capitalism and socialism — were at odds. During that period, the opposition of ideology was more obvious and prominent. However, when confronting the Soviet Union, the United States was playing the China card by holding fast to the alienation between the two communist countries for a long time, in favor of national interests. Since then national interests have gradually prevailed over ideology. During the period of weakening ideological confrontation, conflicts among regional interest groups and within them will soon become prominent. The underlying reason has nothing to do with the difference in civilization, but in the national interest of  countries to which regional interest groups belong.

So is there really a struggle for hegemony behind China’s aspirations accompanying its rise?

We don’t think so. Distinctions between east and west extend to each different angles to approach the world. Neither a “Thucydides trap” nor a “clash of civilizations” is a fact, but instead are explanations and arguments about the nature of the world. The reason why these ideas gain a great amount of popularity is concerned with the international discursive power of the U.S., and also due to the fact that Western media still dominates, reaching a multitude of audiences across the world.

From the perspective of the Chinese, it is a community of shared future for mankind that they would like to envision as the ideal situation of the prospective world. Rather than wrongly regarding it as the political rhetoric, outsiders are supposed to know that this proposal can be traced back the history of ancient China, when Confucius put forward an idea of “datong” or “Great Unity.”

But this idea can be misunderstood very easily. A related example is the status of China’s many Confucius Institutes in the United States particularly. Despite the overall success of these Confucius Institutes around the world (there are more than 500 now), they are increasingly viewed with suspicion by the U.S. government and some academics. Although some of the issues can be addressed by reforms within the CIs, the main issue, however, is the increasing strategic distrust between the U.S. and China in recent years, resulting from China’s lack of experience in clarifying its intentions and the United State’s conerns about China’s future intentions. 

Hence, to clear up doubts from the west, it is significant for China to improve its power of discourse on the global stage and efficiently amplify its voice overseas when shouldering more constructive responsibilities in multiple world affairs.

There is no clash of civilization between these two giants. While conflicts between the U.S. and China remain in certain areas, cooperation and interdependence should be noticed as well. There will be no help to fundamentally resolve the issue if the U.S. keeps overemphasizing and fixating itself on contradictions.