Even as the United States and China inch closer on trade, issues related to freedom of speech and human rights are flaring up. Although the American government officials who alluded to a clash of civilisations between the US and China are no longer in office, this view may still be influential in President Donald Trump's circle. Can such a "clash" be justifiably used as a pretext for a cold war between the two countries?
Most cultures are ethnocentric. Imperial China judged if other cultures were civilised from a Confucian perspective. The US assesses other states from its set of "universal values". The different values that resulted from the two countries' distinct national histories should not be exaggerated as "civilisational" nor necessarily result in a clash - as long as neither side claims "the end of history" or imposes its values on others.
Some are dismayed at China's recent illiberal turn. But China's trajectory has not been easy to predict. Shaped by global, national and local forces, and China's tumultuous history, the values of the Chinese people won't necessarily follow the official line.
The renaissance in Europe and the subsequent Enlightenment ushered in a Western-dominated world order. More than 80 per cent of the world was under some form of Western control a century ago. Civilisation was equated with Western civilisation for centuries. China could not have modernised without some westernisation.
Today's China can hardly be conflated with Chinese civilisation. China's initial westernisation attempts at the end of the Qing dynasty, adopting Western technology while keeping Chinese culture at the core, proved wanting. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 denounced China's past and advocated a wholesale embrace of the West for the country to develop, even survive. The Cultural Revolution mercilessly dismantled Chinese traditional values.
China's official ideology today - Marxism - is a product of Western civilisation. In practice, capitalism, another Western invention, reigns. With the "Three Represents", the Communist Party made it official that it is learning from global best practices.
Even as "universal values" are supposedly taboo at Chinese universities, China's "core socialist values" appear remarkably universal, featuring freedom, equality and democracy. How slogans are translated into practice is quite another matter.
As with the West for centuries and East Asia in recent decades, economic progress has led to cultural confidence. Confucianism can be seen as another viable spirit behind successful capitalism.
However, mainland China, whose revival of Confucianism only came with economic development, is less Confucian than South Korea and Taiwan, and less communitarian than Japan and Korea. So why has China been singled out in any alleged "clash"?
When Samuel Huntington wrote in the early 1990s about the clash of civilisations, building on US-Japan trade conflicts then, he anticipated that the coming US-China confrontation would be fundamentally about power.
China would not be willing to accept the US' global hegemony, while the US would balk at China's dominance in Asia. While the US-China conflict may be motivated primarily by national interests, American values may have something to do with it after all.
At the core of the "Asian-American cold wars", as anticipated by Huntington, is an ascendant Asia increasingly unwilling to accept Western values - whose compliance is expected by the US. According to Huntington, the US' ingrained culture makes it a nanny, if not a bully, in international affairs. However, the US has been acting more like a bully than a nanny lately.
Bernard Lewis, who advanced "the clash of civilisations" concept before Huntington, attributed the root of the inevitable and long-standing conflicts between Christendom and Islam to their similarities.
The case of China is different. Shaped not by religion but history and moral philosophy, China's values are secular and pragmatic. Results-focused and forward-looking, China has freed itself from any ideological straitjacket. Utilitarian rather than dogmatic, China is friendly with Israel and Iran, North and South Korea.
As Trump argued in his recent United Nations speech, the future belongs to countries which respect the cherished histories and cultures of others. Is the US or China more culturally open on the international stage today?
Successful civilisations are open. The US' dynamism comes from its openness to new ideas. For example, Star Wars could not have been made without significant appropriation of Eastern philosophies.
Chinese civilisation was formed through its long history of assimilating foreign cultures. The Tang era, the height of Chinese civilisation and the benchmark for any resurgent China, was distinguished by its openness.
Today's China is a dynamically eclectic mix of East and West. China is realistic enough to know that respecting a mosaic of Asian civilisations is a more strategic way to counter Western "universalism" than jingoism.
The conflicting values between the US and China are more between states than people. Chinese and Americans alike want freedom and human rights. Thus, such national differences are far from a "civilisational" clash - particularly between two fusion cultures. The two leading economic powers can serve their people better by allowing unfettered interactions with mutual respect and understanding.
Winston Mok, a private investor, was previously a private equity investor
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