President Xi Jinping is expected to deliver the keynote address at the soulless sounding Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing later this week.

The timing could not be more prophetic.

With China’s trade dispute with the United States threatening to descend into a new economic Cold War, academics have argued that there is a danger this will turn into a clash of civilizations.

Xi touched on the subject back in 2014 at a conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, in Paris.

“If all civilizations can uphold inclusiveness, the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ will be out of the question and the harmony of civilizations will become reality,” China’s head of state said in a speech.

Fast forward five years and the old geopolitical landscape has been swept away.

President Donald Trump is in the White House, the foreign policy hawks are in the ascendancy and billions of dollars in tariffs on a vast range of Chinese and US imports have been thrown around like confetti.

Double duties

Last week, Washington announced that it would more than double duties on Chinese products worth US$200 billion after trade talks broke down. The Trump administration also threatened to increase taxes on goods worth another $300 billion.

In response, Beijing revealed on Monday that it would increase tariffs next month on US imports worth $60 billion, setting in motion the spiral of escalation.

Even if Trump eventually cuts a deal with Xi after their planned mini-summit at the Group of 20 gathering in the Japanese city of Osaka in June, the wounds will fester and reopen.

Already many ‘movers and shakers’ in Washington see China as the greatest economic and military threat to Pax Americana in the past 70 years as it rapidly develops into a technological superpower.

Others are more circumspect, especially in the world’s second-largest economy.

Wang Jisi, the president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing, outlined the challenges ahead when he told the foreign affairs website China-US Focus:

“One thing happening is that the Americans have lost their patience. When they thought about China 40 years ago, or 30 years ago, they thought that China would become more like the United States – achieving democratic, political pluralism, more diverse views, and a rising middle class that will change the political system of China.

“Their hopes are dashed and shattered. Some of them are complaining, complaining about themselves. Some are complaining about China going back to the old days – a reference to the Mao Zedong years, not the Deng Xiaoping years. Some people complain that some of the policies are driving China back to the old days.

“I’m not so pessimistic. I think there will be twists in history, ups, and downs in the bilateral relationship, but we should remain optimistic that China is changing – and China is changing ultimately in the right direction.”

Many would question that last statement under Xi as he tightens his grip on the levers of power, extends the Great Firewall by strangling online debate and preaches, at times, an old brand of nationalism with Chinese characteristics.

Military spending

Increased military spending has also transformed the balance of power in the East and South China Seas as Beijing’s new naval carrier groups flex their muscles under an umbrella of stealth fighters.

All this has become possible through the country’s unprecedented rise as an economic Goliath.

“After Xi announced the ‘China Dream of Great National Rejuvenation,’ the Communist Party of China identified three important stages of development under three different leaderships: the Chinese people “stood up” under Mao Zedong; ‘became rich’ under Deng Xiaoping, and are ‘becoming powerful’ under Xi. Since Mao’s and Deng’s eras are long gone, naturally, Xi is the focus of this propaganda,” Palden Sonam, of the China Research Programme, wrote in a commentary.

“With his rise as the CPC’s core leader, Xi has embraced an authoritarian form of nationalism based on his strongman leadership in the quest to transform China into a ‘Great Power,’ and has positioned nationalism as a route to realizing the ‘China Dream’,” Sonam added.

In the Washington corridors of power, this is seen as a nightmare scenario with senior figures, such as Vice-President Mike Pence and Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray, calling for a tougher approach in dealing with Beijing.

As the chasm of criticism widens, rhetoric and reason blur the lines of engagement.

Song Wei, a research fellow at the National Academy of Development and Strategy and professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University, highlighted the conundrum.

“There are differences between Chinese and American culture, but the two complement rather than oppose each other. For example, China may need more individualism to boost its society’s vitality, while the US needs more collectivism to eliminate increasingly tense disputes among different social class and ethnic groups,” Song said in the state-owned Global Times, which is owned by the Communist Party of China’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily.

“Labeling China-US competition as ‘a clash of civilizations’ will only stir up anti-China sentiment. It cannot help the two countries resolve their disputes.”

For Xi, those words hark back to a different period in history. Now, “The Times They Are a-Changin.”