US-China clash of civilisations is being played out in the South China Sea
Mark Valencia says the hard and soft power confrontation between the two has all the makings of an existential contest because both see it as their right and destiny to dominate and shape the international order. A clash may be inevitable
The struggle between the US and China for control of the South China Sea is symptomatic of a much deeper “clash of civilisations”. According to Samuel Huntington, the originator of this theory, human conflict has transitioned to a new phase in which formerly dominated, abused and exploited cultures and nations of the non-Western world have increasingly become significant players in shaping the international order. The Sinic culture led by China is prominent among them. This possibly existential contest between it and the West – led by the US – is being played out in the South China Sea.
Indeed, their face-off is a stark contrast of political and economic systems and their underpinning raison d’etre. The outcome of this clash of cultures and self-images is important. It is why the competition between the two in general, and in the South China Sea in particular, is being so carefully watched by those likely to be directly and immediately affected.
The US-China hard and soft power confrontation in the South China Sea is driven by a fundamental disconnect, in that they both see themselves as “exceptional” nations that have the “heaven-sent” mission to lead humanity. Each considers it their right and destiny to dominate and shape the international order to fit their needs.
As such, they boldly interpret international norms and rules, like the law of the sea, in a way that furthers their national interest. As prominent American strategic thinker Graham Allison puts it, to China, the rules-based international order is an “order in which America makes the rules and others obey the orders”. For both, the existing international norms and rules do not apply if their observance would thwart the pursuit of their national interest.
President Xi Jinping recognises this fundamental divergence of cultural identities and world views. In an attempt to avoid a human catastrophe, he proposed to president Barack Obama the negotiation of a new relationship among great powers. But as prominent Australian strategic thinker Hugh White has written, “the US policy community has, with few exceptions, failed so far to understand the nature or the scale of the challenge it faces in negotiating [a new] relationship with China”.
Allison notes that some US policymakers cling to the “fundamentally flawed” strategy of “engage but hedge”, and the forlorn hope “that China will become a liberal democracy, or at least accept a subordinate place in the American-led international order”. However, this is unlikely to happen. As Lee Kuan Yew once put it, China wants to be “accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West”.
For the US, the alternatives to negotiating a new relationship are bleak. As White argues, Washington has shown no appetite for engaging in a confrontation with China in its own backyard, where it might take heavy losses and not win quickly. It seems to have concluded that support for its “friends and allies” or for nebulous concepts like the international order or the freedom of navigation are not sufficient reasons to do so.
Under China’s burgeoning soft and hard power, the Western-built and US-led international order – including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – continues to haemorrhage and there is really little Asean or the US can do about it. In its frustration, the US has bluffed and blustered. According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US opposes “countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo.” But that is precisely what China has done and continues to do – for all the world to see.
The US was hoping that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would unite and side with it against China. But Asean is split in its response to China’s actions in the South China Sea. The US-China struggle has already pushed some Asian countries to hedge or even choose between the two, and by implication their different values. Washington had hoped that China’s aggressive behaviour would push its Southeast Asian neighbours into the arms of the US. But the Southeast Asian South China Sea claimants – and the rest of Asean – increasingly perceive that, with the administration of US President Donald Trump, they are more or less on their own.
Of course, the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – an economic pact proposed and pushed by America – has also contributed significantly to the erosion of confidence in US staying power in Asia. The US is belatedly beginning to realise that its “allies and friends” do not want to see a confrontation between the US and China.
Indeed, US soft-power influence in Asia is turning out to be shallower and more frail than it thought. This has been demonstrated by the Philippine about-face under new president Rodrigo Duterte, deterioration of relations with Thailand since its military coup, refusal of allies to join its freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and – despite US encouragement – Asean’s wishy-washy stance vis-á-vis China’s actions there.
So what can the US do?
According to Allison, there is a “spectrum of strategies” that the US could embrace – “from accommodation at one end to actively undermining the Chinese regime at the other”. At this stage, as White points out, the American leadership seems to see the Sino-US struggle as a win-lose game, that is, “a question of whether America will dominate the region or retreat”.
Nevertheless, some in the influential US analytic policy community are beginning to accept the new reality. In an article in Foreign Affairs, veteran policy analysts Robert Manning and James Przystup conclude that “the reality is that US core interests are not really at stake [in the South China Sea] and China knows it ... The United States needs to come to terms with the great strategic questions of our time: What Chinese role in the Asia-Pacific can it live with?”
It is always possible that the clash of these two systems could produce a hybrid which works well for both – and others. Indeed, White argues that it is possible and highly desirable for the US to continue to play a major strategic role in Asia on a basis that China is willing to accept, and which therefore avoids escalating strategic rivalry and reduces the risk of war.
But this is highly unlikely. The US has no history or precedent of sharing power and it is not likely to start now. Such acceptance just does not seem to be in its ideological DNA, given its self-image as the perpetual No 1.
As Manning and Przystup argue, “both the US and China need to distinguish between what their respective interests dictate they must have and what they merely prefer. This is the key to finding a balance of interests and a modus vivendi for US-China relations in the 21st century”.
But as long as both China and the US believe they have an inherent right and even heaven’s mandate to dominate Asia and the South China Sea, they may well be destined to clash.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China