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.