The US-China trade war is in danger of becoming a “clash of civilisations” with all the consequences. When Trump was elected he promised a stand-off with Beijing, and it has indeed been a clash, but one that has always kept negotiations open and enjoyed moments of calm.
In May, however, everything snowballed and a tariff war began. China has been restrained in its response: it does not want this war, fearing an escalation would frighten off its allies and, in particular, foreign investors.
The US and the flight of capital from China
Commercial damage aside, America does indeed seem intent on triggering capital and company flight from China. Much has been made in the media about businesses being prepared to relocate to Vietnam, which is also why Beijing is giving assurances about the stability of the yuan (Xinhua) and the endurance of its system.
Interpretations of the clash vary: it could be seen to underline the US’s global leadership but could also be contributory to capitalisation in a later round of negotiations.
Good reasons but there is something else, and it doesn’t seem to be Trump’s doing. The US President is pragmatic, as are his wars, but the current conflict is not like that and could become existential.
The “clash of civilisations”
On 30th April, with US-China talks still in progress, the headline in the Washington Examiner was: “State Department preparing for a clash of civilisations with China.” In the article, Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s director of policy planning, remarked that the fight between the US and Soviet Union was, in a way, “within the Western family.”
This is because “Karl Marx was a German Jew who developed a philosophy that was really within the larger body of Western political thought.” The confrontation with China, however, is “a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.”
“Clash of civilisations” is a striking evocation, straight out of the neocon lexicon: an expression used for narrating an alleged historical conflict between Islam and the West, born to justify American military adventurism.
Skinner’s speech caused such concern that Xi Jinping himself has called the evocation “stupid” and “disastrous,” (Politico) instead asserting the productivity of a “dialogue between civilisations.” (ChinaDaily).
Even the Chinese press has been consulted about Skinner’s words. As Global Times explains: competition is “normal in political games among major powers. A rival is not necessarily an enemy.” There are of course differences in ideology and interests between rival powers but it is another thing all together to tear down an “enemy” through “ruthless confrontation.” On the contrary, “there is no irreconcilable contradiction on civilisations between the two.”
The neocon convergence – Bannon
The US State Department’s turning point coincides with Steve Bannon’s strong stance, the so-called Trump ideology, when he maintained on 7th May that there could not be “any compromise” with China. (Foxnews).
This is an interesting coincidence, considering Bannon and certain right wing Americans have supported Trump against the neocons. In the Chinese dispute, therefore, the US’s ideological right appears united and engaged in a struggle that not only has strategic objectives but also existential ones.
This is a clash where anything goes, since the nation’s very survival would be at stake, with a risk of unmanageable deviations, as was the case for the neocon wars. Trump has probably tolerated more change than he wanted, as was revealed to some extent at the G-20 in Argentina in December 2018.
Then, during this talks with Xi Jinping, the CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested, with a potential early agreement going up in smoke. Trump said he wanted to meet the Chinese president at the G-20 to be held at the end of June in Osaka, Japan. It remains to be seen if this meeting will take place and if it will lead to detente.
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