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Foreign Policy

The “Clash of Civilizations”: a Dangerous China-US Narrative

May 16 , 2019
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


Recently, Kiron Skinner, the policy planning director of the US State Department made some surprising remarks while attending a defense forum in Washington, DC. In describing Sino-US relations, she said that the competition between China and the US is “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology”, as “[t]he Cold War constituted…a fight within the Western family,” while the coming conflict with China is “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

Skinner’s speech is indeed remarkable, and her speech quickly spread in American media and academia. Before becoming a senior official at the State Department, Skinner was a well-known international relations researcher and had studied with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The US media speculated that this speech may have far-reaching implications, which may mean that America’s China policy is undergoing another major change—that is, the two countries are shifting from strategic competitors to civilization rivals. Obviously, this is a dangerous signal.

At the same time, Skinner’s speech has caused great controversy in the US. Some progressive media commentators believe that the speech’s content amounts to racism. Others believe that the statement represents the highly controversial “Clash of Civilizations" thesis by the famous scholar Samuel Huntington, which is experiencing something of a renaissance within the Trump administration. The Washington Post said that the introduction of thinking based on racism and the “Clash of Civilizations" into Sino-US relations is dangerous, creating misunderstandings of the Sino-US competition. As history, the “Clash of Civilizations" is untenable. Cooperation between the US and Japan since 1945, or Japan’s invasion of China during World War II shows that civilization and ethnicity are not fundamental constraints in international relations.

Since the US State Department did not clarify or respond to Skinner’s speech, this speech may be an isolated accident that does not represent another downturn in America’s China policy. Prior to this incident, racist language was not extinct in US public opinion, but it did not come from the mouth of a US government official. In social psychology there is the “broken window” theory, which holds that if small unfavorable phenomena in the environment are left unchecked, it will induce people to follow suit and “break more windows,” intensifying the negative trend. While originally applied to policing, this theory has relevance in the realm of diplomacy as well. It is very likely that this incident will reduce taboos among conservative and anti-China forces in the US about using such racially charged language, damaging US public opinion on China and China-US relations.

The choice of official language has a subtle and long-term impact on the relationship between countries, and language that frames countries within a certain historical narrative has an even more remarkable magic. Since the turn of the century, US officials have constantly adjusted their descriptions of China and Sino-US relations.

In 2005, Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick defined China as a “stakeholder,” a change from the Bush administration’s earlier definition of the country as a “strategic competitor.” Since then, China and the US have carried out fruitful cooperation in many fields. In 2009, the Obama administration’s deputy secretary of state, Jim Steinberg, proposed the model of “strategic reassurance,” establishing a constructive approach for the two countries to deal with the growing geopolitical differences.

In 2012, China proactively proposed to the US to build a "new type of major power relations,” thus seeking to establish mutual respect, mutual benefit, and long-term stability with the US, while resolving disputes through cooperation, and avoiding confrontation between major powers. After that, China and the US ushered in a cooperative honeymoon period in the fields of climate change and cybersecurity.

The current friction in Sino-US relations is related to the Trump administration's changed definition of China. At the end of 2017, the Trump administration defined China as a “strategic competitor” in the new US National Security Strategy Report, and put Sino-US relations back on the competitive path of a zero-sum game. This change in definition has gradually affected all aspects of Sino-US relations.

Objectively, there is competition between China and the United States over various interests, but the form that this competition will take is still inconclusive. Whether there is cooperation amid the competition remains to be explored. After all, there remains a wide range of necessary cooperation between the two countries. However, the new framing that puts competition first has changed the judgment of the two countries' public opinion and has intensified mutual distrust at the governmental and social levels.

The resurgence of the "Clash of Civilizations" narrative inflames public concern. But this definition is far from the reality of Sino-US relations. Throughout their two centuries of contact, the people of China and the US have almost never been hostile to each other. Chinese civilization is good at learning and absorbing the achievements of other civilizations, including Western civilization. China will never regard the clash of civilizations as a policy option—this definition of China-US relations will eventually be revealed as false and hollow.

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