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 President Donald Trump (discussed previously in this series), America has begun to see China as a civilisation rather than a a mere communist regime.

This was a major change in America’s strategic thinking. It is one thing to assess China as a colossal demography 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 four-thousand-year-old civilisation.

In the former view, most of America’s key decision-making circles viewed communist China as ideologically inferior to America. 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 project that the Chinese regime will either correct its path and gradually discard Communism in favour of a version of capitalism, or would dither away and be replaced by a different regime.

The story of China’s economic growth over the past three decades and its adoption of many capitalist economic aspects gave credence to this line of thinking. And as many of the grandees of America’s economic and financial structure came to know China well, through tens of visits and often developing close friendships with leading figures in the Chinese political economy, those grandees advised America’s decision institutions that China was on a path towards real change. In this view, China was indeed becoming capitalist, adhering to a nominal communist ideology, while at heart, its highly pragmatic regime had internalised that it must evolve to survive. The argument maintained that the Chinese Communist Party understood that its sole form of legitimacy was its ability to improve living conditions for hundreds of millions of Chinese, and therefore the Party would pursue its ultimate objective – survival – by continuing to pursue economic growth.

This argument worked the other way round as well. That is, this American view maintained that the hundreds of millions of Chinese who had been lifted out of poverty and have crossed the thresholds of middle class would demand further improvements to their economic prospects, would begin to defend the assets they were beginning to accumulate, and so with time, there would be a bottom-up force within the Chinese society that would compel the Chinese Party to evolve towards a new form of government.

America’s post-Cold-War mindset (discussed before in this series) was at play here. 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 of China’s elites have decided to send their children to America’s top universities, seeking education, exposure, and the American way of doing things, of living. Also, there was more than a trace of the idea of “the end of history” and “modernisation theory” lumped together. That is, as societies grow richer, they come to arrive at degrees of liberal, capitalist, democracy.

The moment of reckoning that came with Donald Trump shook America out of that understanding. As discussed before in this series, several of America’s key decision-making institutions resisted abandoning the post-Cold-War mindset. With time, however, and as the Jo Biden administration effectively adopted the same policies that the Trump administration had introduced, America has completed the transformation of its strategic thinking about China. Gone was the view that China will evolve to become “like us”, and in was a new paradigm of an inevitable strategic confrontation.

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

This confrontation is anchored in seeing China as a civilisation, which brings forth three points. First, that China’s consciousness of itself goes back to before the creation of the Communist Party in the mid twentieth century, and to before the “century of humiliation” since Britain had forced China to open up its society and economy in the mid nineteenth century. In this view it is a mistake to confine Chinese aspirations to merely transcending this humiliation; it is perhaps a graver mistake to think of China’s rise in the context of the evolution of its Communist Party. In this view, the correct conception of 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 West’s rise and dominance of the world from the mid seventeenth century. In this line of thinking, this colossal power is rising not to avenge a humiliation from circa 150-years ago, nor to secure the survival of a single political party, but rather to connect with the flow of its history, that is to reclaim and secure its position as a global power and the undisputed hegemon of north and east Asia.

Culture is central to this new American way of seeing China. This way of thinking internalises that Chinese decision-making transcends the top brass of the Chinese Communist Party and is actually inextricably linked to a wider, 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 the Chinese society. At this stage in time, this Chinese consciousness is fuelled by assertive faith that its society and leaders can and must return the country, the embodiment of this consciousness, to its rightful place in the world.

Civilisations might clash, as Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington advocated thirty years ago. And America, as this series has tried to argue, is indeed a wholistic highly successful socio-political and economic project anchored in grand ideas about progress, development, and ideal human conditions. This is why the America-China nascent confrontation carries within it seeds of serious disruptions to the whole world. And even when rival civilisations do not clash, and assuming they find ways of aligning their interests and avoiding zero-sum interactions, they certainly do not converge.

An important variable that will strongly affect this America-China dynamic in the next few years would be how America deals with key Asian nations, other than China, which is the topic of the next article in this series.