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A Timely Act

May 27, 2019 | Expert Insights

The unprecedented rise of China and several other Asian nations has led to a global transformation. While this has a positive impact on much of the world, it has also unsettled a few leading powers that enjoy a privileged position in the international system.
The U.S. hostility in its trade war on China is a reflection of that resistance to accepting this change, which is irreversible. With China taking added responsibilities from connectivity to climate change initiatives, the West has begun to predict another clash of civilizations. Moving beyond military or even ideological asymmetries, they are now plotting civilizational trajectories, such as U.S. President Donald Trump's catchword "Make America Great Again" versus the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.

Genesis of clash theory

The rise of China since the 1990s first triggered the China threat theories, projecting the People's Republic as the next military challenge to the West that emerged victorious following the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. political scientist Samuel Huntington presented his "clash of civilizations" theory, asserting that post-Cold War conflicts would be driven not by ideological, economic or national identities but religious and cultural ones.

China was one of the nine civilizations on his list that included as many as five Asian civilizations: Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese and Japanese. For Huntington, Islam presented the most immediate civilizational challenge. As his 1993 Foreign Affairs essay said, "Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Myanmar and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders."

Before him, others like French Orientalist Louis Massignon had talked of "clash of cultures" since 1931.

Nevertheless, there was also a counter-tradition of not clash but "dialogue among civilizations" which originated in the beautiful city of Isfahan in Iran. In 1902, Safa Khaneh, a village in the city regarded as an interfaith center, initiated these dialogues, mainly between Muslims and Christians. Much later, in 1972, a broader vision was propagated by Austrian philosopher Hans Kochler, who urged UNESCO to hold a conference on dialogue between different civilizations. In 1974 he succeeded in holding the first international conference on the role of intercultural dialogue in Senegal.

In the wake of Huntington's clash of civilizations theory, this counter-narrative was popularized by Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist president from 1997 to 2005. However, Khatami's campaign was limited to scholarly interactions and he was constantly restrained by domestic political upheavals.

But his efforts triggered a much wider debate at the UN General Assembly in 1998, resulting in 2001 being declared as the UN Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. The focus was to encourage dialogue among those who perceived the diversity of civilizations as a threat and others who saw it as an opportunity to learn from one another and prosper together.

It is this inclusive vision that has been taking shape in Chinese President Xi Jinping's articulations in the last five years. And other than his focus on Asia, dialogue among Asian civilizations seems conceptualized much beyond West versus Islam as it seeks to encourage an expanded and inclusive exchange involving multiple civilizations.

Celebrating diversity

In his March 2014 speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Xi said "in the course of some 2,000 years and more, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have been introduced into China successively," which allowed Chinese music, painting and literature to benefit from the advantages of other civilizations.

Over the years Xi developed his vision to celebrate diversity without uniformity, inclusiveness and learning from each other, and equality for a shared future for humanity.

Xi presented these thoughts in his address at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference in 2015, which saw its next annual conference include a session on dialogue of Asian civilizations.

Xi credited his vision to his travels to various countries where he sought to engage with the purpose of learning. He has shared this vision at almost all his bilateral and multilateral interactions leading to Beijing hosting the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations. Besides the focus on Asia, the conference encouraged an expanded and inclusive intercourse involving multiple civilizations.

A multitude of voices are underlining both hope and concerns as a shift takes place from inter-state to inter-societal relations. Technology, in particular, is bridging time and space, creating a greater intermingling of cultures and civilizations where people-to-people interactions are determining the nature and direction of inter-state relations. This is making communication skills critical in the propagation of civilizational discourse.

The China-India cultural and intellectual intercourse presents one of human history's longest dialogues among civilizations. Today this involves over 2.7 billion people of China and India and also their diaspora and others inspired by their ideas. Their partnership has an enormous potential for building a community with a shared future. There is often a temptation to equate religion with civilization. But the Chinese and Indian civilizations go far beyond any of their religious traditions.

There is an expanding consensus that our shared future does not face any clash of civilizations but a clash between civilizations and the uncivilized regressive elements that could exist in all cultures.

Rationalism, renaissance and the revolutionary human experience, especially since early modern times, call for caution against over-emphasizing ancient traditions as the core of a civilization while marginalizing contemporary versions and their material components that also contribute to the making of both culture and civilization.

For instance, China's Belt and Road Initiative is showing signs of redefining not one but several sectors, including manufacturing, supply chains, and commercial networks, and in doing so transforming industrial policies and economic systems in general. This makes China a major locomotive for transforming material culture.

This also makes it a major competitor for the dominating West and materially driven modernization models. The problems Huawei is facing perhaps remain the most in-your-face example of the link between commerce and culture. Also, the individuality and freedom-driven West has difficulties understanding the family, community and duties-driven East.

It is therefore timely that as a leading rising power, China has decided to peg its foreign policy much beyond growth rates and commerce and begun to reach out to the external world through the innovative approach of starting a dialogue among Asian civilizations.

Editor’s note: The original article was published in Beijing Review on May 17th, 2019. The article is authored by Professor Swaran Singh, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Synergia Foundation.