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China vs. America Are Confucian China and the Christian West Destined to Clash?
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China vs. America Are Confucian China and the Christian West Destined to Clash?

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WASHINGTON, DC – February 20, 2019

Today, the US and China are vying for global leadership. The US sees booming China as the main problem of its own security. China considers many US actions to be aggressive. However, these two largest world economies continue their mutual cooperation as usual. Why can't they just “divorce” - break ties with each other or destroy one another? Do these two giants share enough core values to manage a peaceful balancing of power, and can they avert the dreaded Thucydides Trap?

The ongoing  trade war  is just one front of an expanding all-out US-China tussle for world dominance. And unlike earlier great-power rivalries, this has the trappings of a civilisational showdown, as the pre-eminent Christian West faces off against a resurgent Confucian East, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the existing global order. 

For the first time, the question of the confrontation of civilizations within the framework of a civilizational approach in historiography was put by S. Huntington, a professor at Yale University. Today, as globalization increases its power and the geopolitical center shifts, the problem of the interrelationships of regional civilizations of the West and the resurgent Confucian East is becoming more and more relevant. Such a collision could have serious consequences for the existing world order.

S. Huntington confidently and reasonably declares the longstanding hostility of the regional civilizations of the West and the East. From the point of view of the civilizational approach, one of the main factors in the development of relations between these civilizations is religion. Confucianism and Christianity, in this context, are too different.

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Christianity and Confucianism are distinct traditions, with theological assumptions that, if unchallenged, could set the US and China on a collision course. Christianity, like Judaism, believes in the existence of only one true God. But, unlike the latter, the former transcended Judaic ethnocentrism to embrace Christian universalism. The Abrahamic God in Christianity is no longer just for the Jews, but for all peoples.

Still, Christianity remains monotheistic, exacting absolute allegiance to the one God. For Christians, to be saved one must embrace the biblical faith. Put differently, humanity’s fate lies with Christianity, the sole gateway to Heaven.

Imprints of these Christian motifs are unmistakable in Pax Americana. Stepping out of isolation, the US played a central role in stabilizing the post-Second World War order. Hailed as the American century, the 20th century has had its lows, surely. But it was also marked with historic accomplishments.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one. This and other US-led initiatives set the framework for a new international order, whereupon people everywhere could aspire to a dignified existence free of tyranny.

As president John F. Kennedy eloquently acclaimed, “...not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace for our time but peace in all time.”

And Americans embraced this mission as a “manifest destiny” to guide humankind like a “shining city upon a hill.”

Reminiscent of Christian exclusivism, the Americans believed in a singular path to realizing this free world: the liberal democratic process, exalted as the historic culmination of human political progress.

The apparent strengthening of China did not bother the Americans. Many seek comfort in the conviction that as China grows richer and stronger, it will follow in the footsteps of Germany, Japan, and other countries that have undergone profound transformations and emerged as advanced liberal democracies. In this view, the magic cocktail of globalization, market-based consumerism, and integration into the rule-based international order will eventually lead China to become democratic at home and to develop into what former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick once described as “a responsible stakeholder” abroad. 

However, this was not the case. The gulf between the US-led West and Chinese civilization as just as deep, enduring, and consequential. As Huntington put it, “The very notion that there could be a ‘universal civilization’ is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies and their emphasis on what distinguishes one people from another.”

In Confucianism, the ancient Chinese sages also envisioned a “tianxia,” where all peoples could coexist harmoniously under Heaven.

But, unlike Christian monotheism, the Chinese are polytheistic, pledging allegiance to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism all at once. These multiple allegiances underscore the Chinese pluralistic approach to achieving the Dao in this life and the afterlife.

China vs. America  Are Confucian China and the Christian West Destined to Clash?

Americans see government as a necessary evil and believe that the state’s tendency toward tyranny and abuse of power must be feared and constrained. For the Chinese, government is a necessary good, the fundamental pillar ensuring order and preventing chaos. In American-style free-market capitalism, government establishes and enforces the rules; state ownership and government intervention in the economy sometimes occur but are undesirable exceptions. In China’s state-led market economy, the government establishes targets for growth, picks and subsidizes industries to develop, promotes national champions, and undertakes significant, long-term economic projects to advance the interests of the nation. 
Certainly, not every tradition is equal. Confucians do assert dominance. But there is no equivalent Christian doctrine of “God’s elect.” Moral pre-eminence is not predestined but merit-based. If proven worthy, anyone can take the lead under Heaven.

 Chinese culture does not celebrate American-style individualism, which measures society by how well it protects the rights and fosters the freedom of individuals. Indeed, the Chinese term for “individualism”—”gerenzhuyi”—suggests a selfish preoccupation with oneself over one’s community. China’s equivalent of “give me liberty or give me death” would be “give me a harmonious community or give me death.” For China, order is the highest value, and harmony results from a hierarchy in which participants obey Confucius’ first imperative: Know thy place. 

This view applies not only to domestic society but also to global affairs, where the Chinese view holds that China’s rightful place is atop the pyramid; other states should be arranged as subordinate tributaries.

For Americans, democracy is the only just form of government: Authorities derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. That is not the prevailing view in China, where it is common to believe that the government earns or losses political legitimacy based on its performance.

Washington and Beijing also have distinctly different approaches when it comes to promoting their fundamental political values internationally. Americans believe that human rights and democracy are universal aspirations, requiring only the example of the United States (and sometimes a neo-imperialist nudge) to be realized everywhere. 

In contrast, although the Chinese believe that others can look up to them, admire their virtues, and even attempt to mimic their behavior, China’s leaders have not proselytized on behalf of their approach.

The American and Chinese senses of the past, present, and future are fundamentally distinct. Americans proudly celebrated their country turning 242 in July; the Chinese are fond of noting that their history spans five millennia. US leaders often refer to “the American experiment,” and their sometimes haphazard policies reflect that attitude. China, by contrast, sees itself as a fixture of the universe: It always was; it always will be. 

Because of their expansive sense of time, Chinese leaders are careful to distinguish the acute from the chronic and the urgent from the merely important. It is difficult to imagine a US political leader suggesting that a major foreign policy problem should be put on the proverbial shelf for a generation. That, however, is precisely what Deng did in 1979, when he led the Chinese side in negotiations with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and accepted an eventual, rather than an immediate, solution to the dispute. 

Ever more sensitive to the demands of the news cycle and popular opinion, US politicians take to Twitter or announce alliterative, bullet-point policy plans that promise quick solutions. In contrast, Chinese leaders are strategically patient: As long as trends are moving in their favor, they are comfortable waiting out a problem. Americans think of themselves as problem solvers. Reflecting their short-termism, they see problems as discrete issues to be addressed now so that they can move on to the next ones. 

Indeed, Chinese leaders tend to believe that many problems cannot be solved and must instead be managed. They see challenges as long term and iterative; issues they face today resulted from processes that have evolved over the past year, decade, or century. Policy actions they take today will simply contribute to that evolution. For instance, since 1949, Taiwan has been ruled by what Beijing considers rogue Chinese nationalists. Although Chinese leaders insist that Taiwan remains an integral part of China, they have pursued a long-term strategy involving tightening economic and social entanglements to slowly suck the island back into the fold.

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In the nascent Pax Sinica, one can discern the Confucian impressions. Following the epochal Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping, at the 13th National People’s Congress, introduced another grandiose vision: a “community of common destiny.”

Emulating the Confucian “tianxia” concept, Xi vowed to “let the sunshine of a community with a shared future for humanity illuminate the world.” The aim is to herald a global “new era” of stability and prosperity.

Repudiating the West’s “one way only” democratic liberalism, Beijing championed the Confucian “many ways” multilateralism, defending nations’ prerogative to chart diverse ideological progress. The China model, Beijing assured, is unique and will not be replicated elsewhere.

Earnest in intent, China’s campaign to forge an alternative, pluralistic world order is nonetheless facing a hard sell.

State suppression of dissent, and a violent clampdown in restive Xinjiang, among others, have tarnished China’s image abroad and eroded confidence in Beijing’s credibility to assume global leadership.

Last year, US Vice-President Mike Pence delivered a stinging speech, labelling China authoritarian, Orwellian and expansionist.

It was widely interpreted as the declaration of a new cold war, and a wake-up call to contain a menacing power antipathic to the liberal, democratic values of the West and civilized societies.

Civilisations ought to hold each other accountable. But the West’s rebuke of China is tinged with disquieting self-righteousness.

Americans would, of course, readily concede to failings of their own. Yet a quasi-religious conviction persists: the US remains the divinely anointed “first among equals.”

A “messiah complex” continues to plague America, with the tendency to demonise foes and treat challenges to its pre-eminence as a battle between good and evil.

The moral underpinnings of the Confucian East and Christian West are not fundamentally at odds. Admittedly, China’s track record, on human rights,  for example, remains wanting. But these are more due to flawed practices than nefarious principles.

China shares America’s core values: to advance the universal good. They disagree on the means, one must concede. But disputes over liberal democracy are more differences of degree than kind.

US leadership was pivotal and will stay so in the 21st century. But America must shed that “manifest destiny” of an exclusive superpower, and embrace the likes of China as worthy partners in humanity’s quest for an inclusive “community of common destiny.”

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Xi and President Trump have both made maximalist claims, especially when it comes to the South China Sea. But both are also dealmakers. The better the Trump administration understands how Beijing sees China’s role in the world and the country’s core interests, the better prepared it will be to negotiate. The problem remains psychological projection: Even seasoned State Department officials too often mistakenly assume that China’s vital interests mirror those of the United States. The officials now crafting the Trump administration’s approach to China would be wise to read the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun-tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In so doing, Pax Americana and Pax Sinica are more likely to reach a peaceful power equilibrium, thus averting the dreaded collision postulated by the Thucydides Trap.

Author: USA Really