Trump’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with China: Huntington’s Model doesn’t even work in East Asia

Image result for clash of civilizations map

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a week ago.

Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.

The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So

There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…


Kiron Skinner, the Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department, ignited a controversy last week when she analogized Sino-US competition to a clash of civilizations. There has been a good deal of pushback from international relations academics (here, here). Many noted that Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis (article, book) has not actually been born out much. There have not in fact been wars since his writing that have been as epochal as the ‘civilizational’ label would suggest. And Skinner’s particular comment that China will be America’s first “great power competitor that is not Caucasian” sparked a lot of extra controversy that ‘civilization’ was being use as rhetorical cover for the Trump administration’s persistent flirtation with white nationalism.

But one problem in all this not yet pointed out is how poorly Huntington’s model actually fits the dynamics of conflict in East Asia. The argument got its greatest boost from the post-9/11 war on terrorism. There, religious conservatives – on both sides ironically – saw the conflict as much as a millennial clash between Islam and Christianity, as between the US and rather small, if radical, terrorist networks. Huntington’s book was even re-issued with a cover depicting a collision between Islam and the US. But in East Asia, the thesis really struggles.

The central variable defining Huntington’s civilizations is religion. This is why the argument feels so intuitive for the war on terror, where religion is a powerful, obvious undercurrent. But in East Asia, religious conflict was never as sharp as in the West, Middle East, and South Asia. Nor did religion define polities in East Asia as sharply. Confucianism and Buddhism were obviously socially influential, but they generated nothing like the wars of the Reformation or the jihads of early Islam.

So while much of the world is coded by Huntington via religion, he struggles to use that in East Asia. Instead, he falls back on nationality mostly – coding China, the Koreas, and Vietnam as ‘Sinic’ and Japan as ‘Nipponic.’ He also suggested a Buddhist civilization in southeast Asia, as well as Mongolia and Sri Lanka.

All this is analytically pretty messy, however interesting. First, the most obvious benchmark for Huntington to use in East Asia, since he focuses on the world’s major religions elsewhere, is Confucianism. Whether coded as a social philosophy or religion, there is little doubt that Confucius’ writings had a huge impact on China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. But if Huntington had done the obvious and tagged a Confucian civilization including these four players, he would have made the laughably inaccurate argument that those states are natural, i.e., cultural/religious/civilizational, allies.

In reality of course, there is a lot of traditional national interest-style conflict – the kind Huntington says has been replaced by civilizational bloc-building – in the Confucian space. China and Japan are obvious competitors, and the East China Sea is a serious potential hot-spot now. The Koreas are still very far apart ideologically, and neither feels much affective affinity for China or Japan. And China and Vietnam also sliding toward competition in the South China Sea.

So Huntington is stuck; his model does not work in northeast Asia. So to save it, he carves out Japan as a separate civilization defined by nationality, not religion, with little explanation. He then lumps the Koreas and Vietnam under a Chinese-nationality defined ‘Sinic’ civilization, which, in my teaching experience, Korean and Vietnamese readers find either typical American ignorance or vaguely offensive.

The Buddhist civilization of southeast Asia struggles analytically too. Do Mongolia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka have enough in common to bin together? Why isn’t South Korea, where Buddhism was long influential and still very much alive, put into this civilization? Do these states communicate or cooperate with each other in any way that much reasonably defined as ‘buddhistic’? The answer is almost certainly that Huntington did not know or really care that much – likely as he did not know what to do with non-Arab Africa, so he just labels it all one ‘African’ civilization and moves on.

The thesis was really designed to explain the collisions in southeastern Europe (the Balkan wars of the 1990s) and the Middle East between Muslim-majority states and their neighbors, and this is where it continues to be most persuasive when taught. In east Asia though, it falls down pretty quickly. The units of analysis (civilizations) are not constructed in that region around the variable (religion) which Huntington uses elsewhere, and the conflicts of the region have little to do with religion, because organized religion was not as influential in East Asia’s political past as it was elsewhere.

So if this is to be the Trump model for US foreign policy – and it certainly seems to be the administration’s preferred mode to address Islam – it will lead to bizarre predictions and behaviors. The ‘Confucians,’ Buddhists, and East Asian ‘non-Caucasians’ are not going to ally against the United States. China, for all its ‘Sinic’ cultural difference from the West is also, obviously, deeply influenced by Western political thought – most obviously Marxism-Leninism, and, today, capitalism.

We may well fall into a cold war with China; prospects for a benign, or at least transactional, Sino-US relationship are narrowing. But there is no need to over-read that competition as an epochal civilizational clash and thereby make it worse and more intractable. That kind of thinking applied to 9/11 lead to wild overreaction, as we read salafist-jihadist networks as a far greater threat than they were. If we do that with China, which really is very powerful, our competition with it will be that much sharper and irresolvable.

5 thoughts on “Trump’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with China: Huntington’s Model doesn’t even work in East Asia

  1. A more nuanced cultural history may assist in Huntington’s model for East Asia. Treat Japan as Shinto instead –although it is not, and has not been, a ‘dominant’ religion in Japan, Shinto underpins many social norms and modern practices. Similarly, Christianity in S. Korea. Of course, like any macro treatment, Huntington’s breaks down in the details, such as the ‘Western Europe’ major conflicts from Napoleon (and prior?) through Hilter.

    So let’s agree that Huntington’s scope is imperfect, and look for ways to fill in the gaps. And remember that he is looking at more “global” conflict rather than clashes between neighbors (e.g., Vietnam vs Cambodia, which, by the way, follow different schools of Buddhism, mostly).


    • I think you’re perhaps not applying the cultural perspective in the correct way. At least as Huntington’s work is applied today, it’s a means of figuring out which cultures provide motivations to a country’s political direction, and which countries, specifically because of shared cultural histories, share political directions, too. Shinto hasn’t really been a motivating for Japan’s politics since the end of the empire. Christianity has–anti-abortionism, homophobia, and Buddhist antagonism aside–likewise not really been a political force in South Korea. Same with Vietnam and Cambodia: that they follow/ed Mayahana and Theravada wasn’t a major component of the conflict, anyway.

      There are many niches of culture within any nation, of course; the question is whether or not those cultures can produce political force, too. In that sense, East Asia as a unit is, inarguably, Confucianist, if it’s anything at all.


  2. Huntington’s division of east Asia can perhaps be supported by factors other than religion.

    For instance, Japan’s externality to the Sino-sphere is significant.

    Chinese Emperors were said to have the “mandate of heaven”, and had no superior or even equal on earth. Certain civilizations willingly abided by this, notably Korea and Vietnam which refrained from appointing Emperors out of deference to Chinese superiority. They instead obediently settled for Kings, who were not only subordinate to the Chinese Emperor, but had to be appointed by the Chinese Emperor as their source of authority. The Koreans in particular took great pride in subordinating themselves to China, seeing themselves as the “model tributary state”. In this sense, these nations belonged firmly to the Chinese world view and order, and accepted themselves as part of Chinese civilization.

    Contrast this with Japan, which resolutely refused this subordinate relationship with China. Japanese civilization took many advances from China, to be sure, but Japan very clearly appointed their own Emperors (much to the outrage of Koreans). They saw themselves as at least the equal of China, and in Hideyoshi’s case, sought to supplant China as the dominant regional power. Japan tried this again with greater success in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Even today, Koreans for all their nationalism show a reflexive subservience to China. South Korea today, threatened as it is from its fraternal northern neighbour, values its security guarantee provided by the United States. But it otherwise sees no dilemma in an ascendant China that is on course to dominate its region, and is untroubled. Subservience to China remains ingrained in the psyche. This is in stark contrast to Japanese reactions to this prospect.


    • I suspect perhaps Wing doesn’t live in Korea nowadays. The relationship with China is very difficult –in this new century S.Korea had viewed China more as a market to be exploited than a country to deal with, even the more left-leaning administrations were more cooperative than deferential. Since the THAAD missiles issue, it’s all gotten complicated. And I won’t pretend to understand the NK’s relationships with anyone beyond “playing one off the other”.


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