JOCELYN CHEY. Civilisations should not clash

The United States relationship with China has been defined by a State Department senior official as a clash of civilisations. China’s response was given by President Xi Jinping in a speech that stressed the importance of respect for all cultures. Each side however interprets civilisation and culture in a narrow sense that prejudices dialogue. Let us hope that Australia does not fall into the Huntington trap.

On 29 April Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department, made a speech at a public forum convened by the New America think tank, in which she described relations with China as the prime security challenge for Washington, and said that competition between the two would be bitter because “it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” Setting aside the fact that this claim is demonstrably false, Skinner’s statement reveals the basis on which Washington’s foreign policies are being built. What we see unfolding between the US and China is not a trade war, or even a trade dispute, and is certainly not a new Cold War but something more sinister.

When a relationship is viewed as a collision between opponents that have nothing in common, then there can be no communication but only a struggle for power and dominance but that only happens when one side makes no effort to find a middle ground. Tellingly, Skinner described US relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War in different terms, for she claimed that they all along shared perspectives (instancing respect for human rights) so that they could hold discussions and negotiations on equal terms. This could not happen with China, she said, because “this is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.”

Skinner’s remarks seem to echo the prediction made by Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order that, the Cold War having ended, there would inevitably be conflicts between civilizational groups and particularly between “the West and the rest.” When Skinner re-interprets American civilisation and “Western civilisation” to match the State Department’s view of international affairs, she initiates a process of “othering,” that increases the likelihood that clashes will occur.

A simplistic view of the world makes “culture” or “civilisation” a tool to be used in international disputes. American culture cannot be reduced to a manufactured Judaeo-Christian tradition for it is infinitely more complex and includes the cultures of First Peoples, African Americans, Hispanics and generations of immigrants from around the world.

The dangers of such an approach have been noted in Tokyo so it is interesting to note that an attempt was made to build a bridge between Japanese and American cultures during the visit by President Trump. Prime Minister Abe sought to establish common ground through the international culture of golf and to draw a parallel between sumo and wrestling (knowing that Trump is a fan), thus demonstrating that dialogue was possible. Two years earlier, in contrast, when Trump visited Beijing, his hosts arranged a program for him that featured culture “with special Chinese characteristics, with a visit to the former Imperial Palace, a dinner staged in the Palace, and a performance of Peking Opera. The unfortunate effect was to emphasise the differences rather than to draw out the similarities. Not surprisingly, Trump has since then referred toPresident Xi Jinping as a king.

Shortly after Skinner’s speech, President Xi Jinping made his response to it. Speaking at a Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing on 15 May, he “called for discarding arrogance and prejudice, deepening the understanding of differences in civilizations, and advancing inter-civilizational exchanges and dialogue,” according to Xinhua, and put forward a four-point plan to build an Asian community by “treating each other with respect and as equals; appreciating the beauty of all civilizations; adhering to openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning; and keeping pace with the times.” Other speakers, including UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, also rebutted the idea that a clash of civilisations was inevitable, according to the Xinhua report.

These fine-sounding words should be tested against China’s actions. Xi’s policy pronouncement is based on his thesis that China has a unique, national Chinese cultural identity. This does not allow for regional or ethnic diversity within the country. In fact, in Hong Kong and Guangdong, Cantonese language and culture are under threat. In Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, local ethnic communities are forced to absorb Han culture and speak and write in Chinese not their local languages.

Australians should be aware of the dangers of the Clash of Civilisations thesis. Placed as we are in the midst of the most diverse and vibrant cultural hub of the world, we should be promoting openness and diversity and the importance of cross-cultural communication, and not retreating into a simplistic view of “us and them.” This is the context in which many are concerned about the Ramsay Foundation’s proposals to introduce university courses on Western civilisation.

Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95. She is a Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University.


Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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3 Responses to JOCELYN CHEY. Civilisations should not clash

  1. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Thank you, Prof Chey, for introducing this issue in JM. P&I.
    My comments on “‘Stupid’: Chinese president Xi dismisses ‘clash of civilisation’ talk” appeared in the SMH blog on 15 May 2019:
    Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the State Department, said that unlike the Cold War with Russia, rivalry with China was “a fight with a really different civilisation”.
    The statement has introduced “racial” politics into the geopolitical arena. Apart from the strong response by China’s President Xi, Skinner has also attracted severe criticism in the United States as “racists”.
    The Washington Post (4/5/2019) comment headlined “Treating China as racial foreign could lead the US into war”. By inserting “racism:” into Cold War II, Skinner is exploiting the Western racial attitudes and polarizing their racial views.
    The US foreign policy blog (2/5/2019) said that the talk of clashing civilization reveals the racists and dangerous lens of the new US statecraft and concluded that it could be the Real Trump doctrine on US foreign policy. If Trump denies this, then Skinner would be “fired” as a scapegoat.
    US media Bloomberg headlined that “Clash of Civilizations has no place in US Foreign Policy”.
    If Trump’s intention is to build relations at a high level with China and Russia, then Skinner has contradicted Trump. Or the same game is played (Good Cop, Bad Cop) with Bolton & Pompeo raising tensions in the Persian Gulf and talking themselves into a war with Iran whilst Trump wants to pull out from the Middle East.
    One thing for sure, that is, the US action in protecting her global hegemony in geopolitics and trade is consistent but the approach is like a see-saw, and with each upward swing, we are being led closer to WW3, and on the downward swing, we breathe a sigh of relief.
    The question is “How much of the roller coaster ride can the world tolerate before the rail car jump off the track into MAD?”
    I agree with Prof Chey on this broad issue however, I do not believe Cantonese is being suppressed. Cantonese is considered a “dialect” and the written script is the same for all Chinese dialect. In fact, classical literary verses written by Cantonese can only be read properly in the Cantonese dialect. This example also includes Hakka dialect classics written during Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
    In Multicultural Australia, citizens are encouraged to learn English and their mother language is not suppressed. Similarly, in China, the written word is already universal in China 2,000 years ago and there is no problems with people speaking other dialects but using the same script. The Tibetan and other minority languages are still preserved but to get ahead you must learn the national language, like we learn English in Australia.

  2. Avatar tasi timor says:

    ‘Civilisations should not clash’

    They don’t, cultures do. The conflation of culture and civilisation, and the explicit acceptance of multiple civilisations [as this title does], helps perpetuate the Huntington trap we all detest. David Wilkinson has given us a powerful antidote to Huntington, proposing that there is now just a single Central Civilisation which has enfolded all others. Within it, a multiplicity of cultural nodes may clash, in Hegelian fashion often dynamically. There can be no clash between Western and Islamic civilisations if neither exist, having been enfolded by the Central Civilisation as cultural nodes. Wilkinson’s construction if more widely accepted in political discourse has the potential to take the heat and arrogance out of Huntington, and language can shape actions. From a Wilkinsonian point of view, the Ramsey course is only teaching the history and cultures of the Western Civilisation[s] which once existed. That shouldn’t be concerning.

  3. Excellent advice by a highly esteemed Australian diplomat and academic. Our Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently described China as a client. This does not bode well for nurturing relations with our most important economic partner. Australia must deepen and broaden its engagement with all our neighbours in the Asia Pacific and beyond. We also need to allocate resources for meaningful diplomacy based on “treating each other with respect and as equals; appreciating the beauty of all civilizations; adhering to openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning; and keeping pace with the times.” Foreign policy debate was unfortunately avoided by our major political parties who pretend that the status quo will remain for ever.

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