Trump’s trade war with China isn’t a civilisational conflict
15 May 2019|

Late last month at a security forum in Washington DC, Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning for the US Department of State, described today’s US–China conflict as ‘a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before’. As a trial balloon, this apparent attempt to define the Trump administration’s confrontation with China didn’t fly.

By framing the creeping cold war between the US and China as a clash of civilisations, Skinner—whose position was once held by luminaries such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Richard N. Haass and Anne-Marie Slaughter—was being neither original nor accurate. The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington developed the concept more than a quarter-century ago, and the Chinese Communist Party itself is an ideologically bankrupt entity.

Worse, Skinner’s full remarks were freighted with racial overtones. Unlike America’s competition with the Soviet Union, which she described as ‘a fight within the Western family’, the rivalry with China supposedly represents ‘the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian’. Never mind that the US fought Japan in World War II.

One hopes Skinner’s talk of a clash between Caucasian and non-Caucasian civilisations was just a slip of the tongue. Those who would intentionally traffic in such ideas must know that they could lead not just to the economic or military defeat of one side, but to the destruction of an entire society. How policymakers frame the US–China conflict will have far-reaching implications, and the US must demonstrate that its policies are motivated by a higher moral purpose if they are to gain wider international support.

Most commentators see the US–China conflict as a struggle between an incumbent power and its most plausible challenger. The two countries appear to be falling into the proverbial ‘Thucydides trap’, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which a hegemon’s fear of being supplanted leads it to act in such a way as to precipitate a war for global dominance.

And yet, even if today’s conflict is being driven by a zero-sum quest for power, that should not be the US’s sole consideration. Given the threat of civilisational collapse posed by climate change, the Trump administration’s focus only on US interests appears selfish and irresponsible to the rest of the world.

The fact is that most of the world—including a sizeable share of Americans—has no interest in being plunged into another cold war just to preserve US hegemony. If the US government wants to garner international support for countering Chinese power and influence, it must make a more compelling case.

This shouldn’t be all that difficult, given that the rise of China under a one-party dictatorship threatens not just American hegemony but the rules-based international order. Rather than framing the conflict as a race war, then, the US should focus on the Chinese threat to global institutions, which, by extension, is a threat to many other countries’ growth and stability.

Whatever its flaws, the US-led international order offers far more benefits to other countries than any conceivable alternative system could. Indeed, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the US enjoyed widespread international support precisely because it was leading a defence of that order. And since the end of that conflict, most of the world has either welcomed or accepted American hegemony, on the tacit understanding that the US would continue to uphold the liberal framework.

Sadly, that condition no longer holds. The Trump administration has unabashedly championed an ‘America first’ foreign policy agenda, alienating traditional allies and alarming the rest of the world for the sake of narrow political objectives. It’s no exaggeration to say that President Donald Trump’s misguided policies pose as great a threat to the liberal order as China does.

The Trump administration may continue to believe that US power on its own is enough to vanquish China. But going it alone will prove costly, and the chances of success would be much higher if the US were to marshal the support of its friends and allies.

The latest failure to reach a trade deal suggests that the US–China cold war is escalating to the next stage. Sooner or later, the Trump administration will realise that it actually needs the support of its allies to prevail against the Chinese. When that day comes, it would do well to abandon talk of civilisational conflict and racial rivalry, and instead offer a morally justifiable case for confronting China. The US is the traditional defender of the liberal order; it needs to start acting like it.