America from afar — (VIII) China

Tarek Osman
Monday 20 May 2024

America has begun to see China as a civilisation rather than merely a Communist regime, representing a major change in its strategic thinking, writes Tarek Osman


America’s political decision-making circles – at least the ones in the limelight – have never subscribed to “Tianxia,” the notion that China’s ambition is hegemony over “all under the heavens.”

But since the moment of reckoning that came with the coming to power of former US president Donald Trump (discussed earlier in this series of articles), America has begun to see China as a civilisation rather than merely as a Communist regime.

This is a major change in America’s strategic thinking. It is one thing to assess China as a colossal country controlled by a party that follows an ideology that America fought and defeated in the Cold War. It is quite another to study China as a 4,000-year-old civilisation.

In the former view, most of America’s key decision-making circles viewed Communist China as ideologically inferior. The inherent weaknesses of Communism had become glaringly apparent in the past half century, and so assessing the future of the Chinese Communist Party led many American strategists to predict that the Chinese regime would either correct its path and gradually discard Communism in favour of a version of capitalism or would wither away and be replaced by a different one.

The story of China’s economic growth over the past three decades and its adoption of many aspects of the capitalist system gave credence to this line of thinking. As many of the grandees of America’s economic and financial structure came to know China well, through dozens of visits and often close friendships with leading figures in the Chinese system, they advised America’s decision-making institutions that China was on the path towards real change.

In this view, China was indeed becoming capitalist. While it still nominally adhered to a Communist ideology, at heart its highly pragmatic regime had understood that it must evolve in order to survive. The argument maintained that the Chinese Communist Party had realised that its legitimacy depended on its ability to improve the living conditions of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Therefore, the party would pursue its ultimate objective – survival – by continuing to pursue economic growth.

The argument worked the other way round as well. It maintained that the hundreds of millions of Chinese who had been lifted out of poverty and had crossed the threshold of the middle class would demand further improvements to their economic prospects, would begin to defend the assets they were beginning to accumulate, and so over time there would be the development of grassroots forces within Chinese society that would compel the Chinese Communist Party to develop a new form of government.

America’s post-Cold War mindset, discussed earlier in this series, was at play in this regard. Many of the grandees of America’s foreign policy and economic and financial structure, especially those who came to think that they understood China, assumed that their counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai had seen the superiority of the American model. After all, many members of China’s elite had decided to send their children to top American universities, seeking education and exposure to the American way of doing things.

There was also more than a trace of the idea of “the end of history” and “modernisation theory” lumped into this mindset. It thought that as societies grow richer, they come to arrive by degrees at liberal and capitalist democracy.  

The moment of reckoning that came with Trump shook America out of this way of thinking. Several of America’s key decision making institutions resisted abandoning the post-Cold War mindset, but with the Biden administration effectively adopting the same policies that the Trump administration had earlier introduced, America has completed the transformation of its strategic thinking about China. Gone is the view that China will develop to become more “like us,” and it is a new paradigm of inevitable strategic confrontation.

Strategic confrontation does not mean war, however. The word “strategic” underscores that this confrontation is about political ideas, international influence, economic rivalry, and competitive advances in the technologies that will help to shape human life in the foreseeable future much more than it is about any form of direct or indirect military clash between America and China.

It is a confrontation that is anchored on seeing China as a civilisation, and this gives rise to some major points.

First, China’s consciousness of itself goes back to before the creation of the Chinese Communist Party in the mid-20th century and before the “century of humiliation” when Britain forced China to open up its society and economy in the mid-19th century. In this view, it is a mistake to confine Chinese aspirations to merely transcending that humiliation. But it is also perhaps an even graver mistake to think of China’s rise in the context of the development of the Chinese Communist Party.

The correct way of looking at China is to see it as a civilisation that was for many centuries a global power with unrivalled influence over the whole of North and East Asia until the rise of the West and its domination over the rest of the world from the mid-17th century onwards. In this line of thinking, China is rising not to avenge a humiliation that took place 150 years or so ago or to secure the survival of a single political party but is doing so instead to connect with the flow of its history and to reclaim and secure its position as a global power and the hegemon of North and East Asia.  

Culture is central to the new American way of seeing China. It accepts that Chinese decision making transcends the top brass of the Chinese Communist Party and is inextricably linked to a wider and deeper consciousness that links that top brass to many other nodes of power in China’s political economy, as well as to the cultural aspirations of large segments of Chinese society. These are fuelled by the view that China’s leaders must return the country, the embodiment of this consciousness, to its rightful place in the world.

Civilisations can clash, as US political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote 30 years ago in a famous article. America, as this series of articles has tried to argue, is indeed a highly successful socio-political and economic project anchored in grand ideas about progress, development, and a certain vision of human life. It is for this reason that the nascent confrontation between America and China carries within it the seeds of serious disruptions affecting the world as a whole. Even when rival civilisations do not clash and can find ways of aligning their interests and avoiding zero-sum interactions, they certainly do not converge.

An important variable that will strongly affect the America-China dynamic over the next few years will be how America will deal with other key Asian nations apart from China, and this is the subject of the next article in this series.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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