(Originally published here by South China Morning Post.)
In the great Sino-American rift that opens wider by the day, the word “civilisation” is already overdone.
The C-word now occupies the debate around the current United States-China trade war in the same way that vape pens have become a fixture of adolescence.
Both trends are equally mindless and unhelpful. US State Department official Kiron Skinner may have brought the term into the trade war rhetoric, but the idea that we’re in a civilisational stand-off preceded her remarks.
Many in the orbit around US President Donald Trump – including Michael Pillsbury, Peter Navarro and Steve Bannon – had already hyped the two countries’ differences to such heights.
There may be more to this strategy than concern about the threats the Chinese government pose to the US.
It took decades for Washington to finally understand that Beijing has no intention of adopting the kind of reforms that became the defining characteristics of Western liberal democracies: checks and balances on government, freedom of expression, and open markets that make no distinction between nations of origin.
Now that the reality has sunk in, it is providing an ideological foundation for the US government’s hard line against China on many fronts. For its part, China has dug in, repudiating the basic tenets of governance in the Western world.
The prevailing messages we hear from Beijing now are that China will always stand in contrast to the US and promote its model to the rest of the world as a viable and rational alternative.
Each side is trying to assert its dominance and undermine that of the other side, as though our respective ways of life depend on the outcome of this competition.
Bringing the issue to these heights is crucial for Trump and those supporting him (who have, ironically, done more than anyone in the Western world to work against its aforementioned defining characteristics).
The gravest threat to American civilisation is not China, and vice versa.
The ultimate challenge for all of the world’s civilisations is already upon us in the form of floods, droughts, tornadoes and other weather events that the vast majority of the world’s scientists are telling us are related to the burning of fossil fuels.
There’s something darkly poetic about the way the debate about civilisations flared up just as the American heartland was getting battered by a series of disastrous tornadoes and floods.
Even The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board is a leading opponent of climate change action, published a feature last year about how the insurance industry is struggling to properly value the extra damage climate change is causing.
“We don’t discuss the question any more of, ‘Is there climate change’,” the Journal cited Munich Re CEO Torsten Jeworrek as saying.
The Trump administration works overtime to scupper efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but they can’t call coverage of increasingly violent storms fake news.
So they need to flood the media with dire warnings about China to keep American voters agitated about an issue that won’t mean less financial backing from the fossil fuels industry.
To be sure, the US government needs to act on the threats the Chinese government pose to the US.
There are now dozens of outstanding US federal indictments against entities in China on charges ranging from the distribution of fentanyl to theft of aerospace secrets.
The US government should of course be working together with US companies to combat such threats.
But let’s also be realistic about our greatest challenge.
The US and China are the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. While both sides assert the superiority of their civilisations, they are very rapidly imperilling our ability to sustain them.
Cyberespionage, military installations in the South China Sea, sanctions against Huawei, market access and intellectual property violations might seem like crucial, civilisational matters at the moment.
But if our scientists are correct, these matters will mean nothing when our largest cities flood and our crops can no longer withstand weather extremes.
If the US and China can bring themselves to work together at this problem, they might discover ways to agree on all these other issues that are now tearing the bilateral relationship apart.
It might sound hopelessly optimistic to imagine the desire to cooperate on this urgent issue could overcome the divergent and incompatible positions Washington and Beijing have taken on so many fronts. But this has nothing to do with optimism.
Collaboration is the only remaining option to save our respective civilisations. Whether we pursue that option is up to all of us.