See More on Facebook

Diplomacy, Opinion

EDITORIAL: ‘Clash of civilizations’ narrative dangerous

Using the term to describe US-China relations sets a bad precedent.


Written by

Updated: May 28, 2019

Speaking at a recent defense forum in Washington, Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning in the US Department of State, described the United States’ competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology”. She also said that the “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 soon went viral for all the wrong reasons, drawing criticism from politicians and academics alike.

The US media speculated that Skinner’s speech could have far-reaching implications, meaning the US’ China policy might be undergoing another major change-perhaps the US no longer sees China as a strategic competitor but as a rival civilization. Obviously, this sends a dangerous signal.

Some progressive media commentators said that Skinner’s statement amounts to racism. Others stressed that her remarks represent US political scientist Samuel Huntington’s highly controversial “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, which is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in the White House.

The Washington Post said the introduction of thinking based on racism and the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis into Sino-US relations is dangerous, because it would create misunderstandings about Sino-US competition.

Racist remarks are not new in US political and social circles, but before the present administration took office they did not come from the mouth of US officials. In social psychology there is a “broken window” theory, which holds that if small unfavorable social phenomena are left unchecked, they will induce people to “break more windows” and thus intensify a negative trend. While originally applied to policing, the theory is relevant to diplomacy, too. After all, Skinner’s remarks could break the taboo and prompt other conservative and anti-China forces in the US to use such racially charged language, further damaging China-US relations.

The choice of official language has a subtle but long-term impact on the relationship between countries, and a language that frames countries within a certain historical narrative is the need of the hour.

Yet since the turn of the century, US officials have constantly changed their descriptions of China and Sino-US relations. In 2005, Robert Zoellick, then deputy secretary of state, defined China as a “stakeholder”, which was a change from the George W. Bush administration’s earlier definition of the country as a “strategic competitor”.

In 2009, Jim Steinberg, then deputy secretary of state, proposed the model of “strategic reassurance”-a constructive approach for the two countries to deal with the growing geopolitical differences.

In 2012, China proposed to the US to build a “new type of major country relationship” based on mutual respect, mutual benefit and long-term stability, and resolve disputes through talks while avoiding confrontation. After that, China and the US enjoyed a period of cooperation in the fields of climate change and cybersecurity.

The current Sino-US frictions can be attributed to the White House’s changed definition of China. At the end of 2017, the National Security Strategy report defined China as a “strategic competitor”, making Sino-US relations a zero-sum game. This change in definition has gradually affected all aspects of Sino-US relations.

Objectively speaking, indeed there is competition between China and the US in various fields, but confrontation is not the form this competition will take. Plus, it has to be explored whether there can be cooperation amid such a competition. After all, the two countries do cooperate on a wide range of issues.

But by putting competition first, the National Security Strategy report has increased mutual distrust at the government and public levels. The resurgence of the “clash of civilizations” narrative has raised public concern, because it is far from the reality of China-US relations.

During their two centuries of contact, the people of China and the US have almost never been hostile to each other. Chinese people are good at learning from the achievements of other civilizations, including Western civilization, because in their eyes, no civilization is inferior or superior to others. Therefore, defining China-US relations as a “clash of civilizations” is an attempt to deny the truth and spread hollow ideas.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


About the Author: ANN’s Board member Ms Esther Ng, Malaysia’s The Star’s Chief Content Officer, has been bestowed the 2019 Asian Women Entrepreneurs Leadership Award in the Media and Communications category.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Diplomacy, Opinion

Internet healthcare serving homebound patients in China

Online consultations, pharmaceutical deliveries play vital role during outbreak. One recent rainy day, Wu Hong was waiting at the gate of her residential community in Wuhan, Hubei province. When a deliveryman with a bag of medicine came into sight, she was greatly relieved. Wu’s mother-in-law is a breast-cancer patient and needs to take medicine regularly. Wu’s father suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and inhalers have been in short supply. As the novel coronavirus epidemic grew more serious, Wu wasn’t permitted to take her family to the hospital for drug refills. She was left in a state of restless anxiety. On Feb 26, Wu and her husband saw a news segment on TV saying that the Wuhan government had enabled online reimbursement se


By China Daily
March 13, 2020

Diplomacy, Opinion

India’s Congress suffers setback after key leader defects to BJP

Move by Scindia and 22 legislators could trigger fall of Congress-led govt in central Madhya Pradesh state. The Congress has suffered a political setback following the resignation of Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia and 22 legislators in Madhya Pradesh state, deepening an existential crisis for a party that is struggling for political relevance in modern Indian politics. Mr Scindia, 49, an articulate leader, yesterday joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with legislators loyal to him expected to follow suit. The move could lead to the collapse of the Congress-led Madhya Pradesh government. That would give the BJP a chance to form the government in the Hindi heartland state, which is seen as key objective for


By The Straits Times
March 12, 2020

Diplomacy, Opinion

Chinese Red Cross teams aid Iran’s COVID-19 fight

Humanitarian group to help Iranians with containment measures that worked in China. Voices on the other end of the line cut in and out due to a poor phone connection as officials at the Red Cross Society of China’s headquarters in Beijing attempted to talk to staff members on the ground in Iran on Tuesday morning. As the signal stabilised, the latest developments in controlling the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic in Teheran streamed into a conference room packed with Red Cross managers. Zhou Xiaohang, head of a five-member team-four medics and a Farsi interpreter sent to assist with COVID-19 control in Iran-said Iranians are increasingly taking precautions such as wearing face masks and washing their hands more often.


By China Daily
March 11, 2020

Diplomacy, Opinion

Shortage of Masks, Handwash due to panic- buying: Leave some for everyone

Despite repeated calls by global and local health experts and warnings from government, panic-buying grips the country. Global health experts have warned against hoarding masks, handwash and sanitisers during the coronavirus outbreak as it could worsen the situation by depriving those who might need them. Despite this, panic-buying of these products in Dhaka has been triggered by news of the first confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. Across the capital, several pharmacies and superstores have been facing a shortage of masks, antiseptic liquids and sanitisers since Sunday afternoon. The demand for tissue papers has also almost doubled overnight, some retailers claimed. Many of the retail stores, super shops and pharmacies in Karwan Bazar, M


By Daily Star
March 10, 2020

Diplomacy, Opinion

MH17 trial in Malaysia begins today

It was reported that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile while flying over the conflict-hit eastern Ukraine. The trial will begin today. All eyes will be on the District Court of The Hague at the Schiphol Judicial Complex (JCS) in Badhoevedorp as the criminal proceeding against four men accused of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 begins. It was reported that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile while flying over the conflict-hit eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board, comprising 43 Malaysians, 193 Dutch nationals and 27 Australians, were killed. Members of the Malaysian media here to cover the start of the trial were given a briefing by press secretary for the judge, Yolande Wijnnobel, on what to expect at the start of the much-awai


By The Star
March 9, 2020

Diplomacy, Opinion

OPINION: ‘Righteous’ women

So who is this ‘righteous’ woman that would never dare join Aurat Marchers? ‘TIS the season to be righteous, or so many prominent Pakistanis on TV and social media along with the religious right would have us believe. Pakistan suffers from hypocritical moral policing at the best of times — in homes, colleges and universities, places of religious worship, and the workplace — but the trigger for the current frenzy is the impending Aurat Marches in many cities of the country. Given that these marches only began three years ago, one can only marvel at how rapidly they have gotten under the proverbial skin of their highly agitated opponents. Enough has been said and written about the wider context of the marches and why they threaten the


By ANN Members
March 6, 2020