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The worst justification for Trump’s battle with China? The ‘clash of civilizations’

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Unlike most of President Trump’s foreign policy, his adversarial approach to China is relatively popular in Washington. Many agree that China’s trade policies are unfair, its human rights violations unconscionable and its aggressive posture in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait dangerous.

However, the broader rhetoric used by the Trump administration against Beijing doesn’t always sit well with a lot of China experts. Indeed, many hate it. They certainly don’t see the dispute between the Trump administration and Xi Jinping’s China as a “clash of civilizations.” Even fewer think that ethnicity is central to the dispute.

And so, when a senior State Department official and former Trump campaign staffer invoked both as she discussed her administration’s China policy this week, it prompted a slew of criticism from Asia-watchers.

Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the State Department and a Harvard-educated historian, was speaking at an event with the think tank New America on Monday when she offered her thoughts on why the dispute with China was different from the Cold War, which had seen the United States push back against the Soviet Union.

“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before,” Skinner said. Later, Skinner, who is African American, invoked ethnicity as another difference between the current Cold War and the one against the Soviet Union. “It’s also striking that this is the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” she said.

The remarks caused alarm among China-watchers, who were dismayed at what they saw as a simplistic view of one of the biggest challenges facing the United States.

The Wilson Center’s Abraham Denmark, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said they reflected a “fundamental misunderstanding of both China itself and the challenge we face,” while Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that it was a “rather appalling, racist-based assessment” of the threat.

As director of policy planning, Skinner is expected to not only help implement Trump’s foreign policy but also help justify it to the world. She described on Monday not only the “Trump doctrine,” which she said focused on national sovereignty, but also the “the Pompeo corollary” that saw the State Department “find the diplomatic angle in all aspects of what the president is attempting to do.”

“You can’t have a policy without an argument underneath it,” Skinner told the audience at New America.

But when it comes to China, the argument is ill-formed. Skinner seemed to forget about the Second World War, during which the United States fought the Japanese in the Pacific theater. And though she cited the influence of the German political theorist Karl Marx on the Soviet Union as evidence that the Cold War "was a fight within the Western family,” she omitted Marx’s influence on Chinese Communism.

Instead, she leaned on Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory of a “clash of civilizations.” Though Huntington’s 1993 essay, later expanded into a book, is now best remembered for his suggestions about a clash between the West and the Islamic world, he also wrote at length about a rising China.

Under the Trump administration, that argument has gained traction. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who has warned that war between the United States and China may be inevitable, has written approvingly of it, while other anti-China activists echo its theories in a more aggressive tone.

But many argue that the idea of a clash of civilizations can end up a self-fulfilling prophecy — as evidenced by the ever-expanding war on Islamist terrorism. “In the United States, there has been a continued search by some people for a powerful rival with whom we can compete for superiority and control of the world... China’s economic rise came along and gave people a new rival to elevate to the status of ‘existential threat,'” Simon Lester of the Cato Institute wrote for the National Interest in January.

By emphasizing a clash between civilizations, it’s easy to ignore the real substance of the dispute between the United States and China. So far, most of that dispute has played out in the area of trade, with ongoing negotiations in Beijing this week. Things are reported to be going positively, with some expecting a deal next week.

Meanwhile, other pressing issues between the two countries have gone unaddressed. Most obviously passed over is the issue of human rights. Though lawmakers have called upon the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials for their role in the mass detention of Uighurs in the country’s Xinjiang Province, the White House hasn’t acted. Speaking on Monday, Skinner seemed to suggest there was little room for dialogue about human rights abuses with China.

Pointing to the human rights aspects of the 1975 Helsinki Accords that sought to calm Cold War tensions, Skinner said, “That’s not really possible with China” because of its different civilization.

This is hardly a powerful argument to sell Washington policy experts on Trump’s battle against China, as evidenced by the angry reactions to Skinner’s comments. But it may be an even worse one with the American public, who polls show are not convinced of the threat from China, or an international audience, who tend to view Xi more positively than Trump.

It may not convince Trump either. Despite the grand rhetoric of a clash of civilizations, the president himself is apparently now interested in finding common ground. As a source briefed on trade talks told the Financial Times, a lot of issues were being jettisoned “because President Trump wants a deal.”

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