China-US relations

Trump’s ‘America first’ and Xi Jinping’s ‘China first’: how different are they?

Patrick Mendis considers the points of agreement – and divergence – in the American and Chinese nation-building projects, particularly as both presidents today display an affinity with the more Hamiltonian ‘transactional’, rather than a ‘transformational’, approach to leadership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 April, 2017, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 9:18pm

President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) China Dream is all about the rejuvenation of Chinese culture and its Confucian history, as if it is Beijing’s “China first” strategy to bring back the glory of the Middle Kingdom. This nationalistic approach is increasingly similar to that of the “America first” rhetoric of President Donald Trump, who has shaken the myth of “American exceptionalism” in world affairs.

Since the two presidents have now met at Trump’s “Winter White House” in Florida, it is worth revisiting these two driving concepts as Beijing itself uses America’s Hamiltonian elements in its historic development to realise the China Dream.

As George Washington’s first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton advocated a strong centralised government, supported a national banking system, developed a naval force to protect the nation and its external trade, and embraced manufacturing and commerce for the young nation’s development strategy. This world view was different from his arch-rival Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state. Jefferson romanticised agrarian virtues, popularised democratic sentiments in religious freedom and human rights, and the ability of the people to govern themselves at the hamlet level.

Will dream shared by Xi Jinping and Donald Trump become a nightmare?

In their first face-to-face summit meeting in Florida, Trump had all but forgotten his previous anti-China rhetoric, and, instead, showed a conciliatory tone for a more pragmatic relationship with China. The tycoon-turned-author, who knows about “the art of the deal” for “transactional” relationships, shares a Hamiltonian outlook with his Chinese counterpart, whose China Dream is driven by the transactional nature of the “One Belt, One Road” plan for Beijing’s national development.

After Mao, Deng invoked Hamiltonian-like policies ... The question is: will China ever follow the American experience of Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends?

Before Xi, Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) adopted a Hamiltonian-like export-led open economic policy with a strong centralised government. Like the succeeding Communist Party leaders, Trump and his millionaire cabinet members and advisers have appeared to ignore the Jeffersonian ideals of religious freedom and human rights that have been the American trademark of “transformational” leadership in international affairs.

Trump is the first US president to explicitly reject the idea of American exceptionalism, saying it is “not a nice term”, and campaigned on a set of nationalistic policies under the slogan of “America first”. By contrast, his Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton championed a traditional vision of a globalised America, believing exceptionalism in international engagement as the “indispensable nation”.

With the new leader in the White House, Xi echoed the Chinese version of liberal international order and globalisation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as if China intends to take on the global but transactional leadership now vacated by Trump’s “America first” policy. Does it?

It is worth remembering the founding fathers of the United States gave birth to a republic. The US was not a “democracy”; the word was never mentioned in the founding documents. The nascent republic was essentially nurtured by Hamilton’s vision. He was the primary architect of the American governing mechanism and the visionary of its capitalistic economic system; thus, creating a cosmopolitan, commercial and industrial nation, as opposed to a Jeffersonian “Empire of Liberty”, with yeoman farmers in hamlets untouched by the so-called corrupting influence of bankers and financiers in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

During the earlier years of the republic until the opium wars in China and the civil war in America, the US became a prosperous and wealthy nation through trade with China. The Hamiltonian framework has long been the driving force in American prosperity to achieve Jeffersonian ends of greater freedom and liberty to all Americans – including women, African Americans, native Americans and immigrants. This tradition has changed with Trump, whose White House is now dominated by wealthy white men.

After Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) death, Deng also invoked Hamiltonian-like policies to spur economic growth. The question is: will China ever follow the American experience of Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends?

‘China doesn’t want to be the new America’: why Trump needn’t clash with Beijing

With the China Dream, Xi’s approach to “make China great again” through its state-owned enterprises has continuously been updated, while restricting Jeffersonian freedoms and other liberties of free expression and press in China. As the “Chairman of Everything”, he has stressed that the party’s unwavering leadership over state-owned enterprises is the key component of his “One Belt, One Road” plan. China’s state-owned enterprises are a strategic byproduct of the Confucian culture of centralised governance. More recently, Xi has appointed former CEOs of state enterprises as provincial leaders, to strengthen his power structure in government and business.

Meanwhile, in America, as part of Trump’s efforts to “make America great again”, the White House has seemingly resorted to a Hamiltonian view of a manufacturing nation with a strong military, while it has criticised the Jeffersonian character of a robust and independent press, along with religious tolerance and the acceptance of immigrants.

Observing the changing dynamics in the US and elsewhere in the world, the question is: will the US follow the experience of centralised Confucian power – and by default the Chinese Communist Party – to create a Hamiltonian world for wealthy and powerful Hamiltonians?

‘America first’ thinking won’t survive in a hyperconnected world

Surely, China as a thriving civilisation-state is an artefact of evolution in history. For its part, the US has always aspired to be the “Empire of Liberty” envisioned by Jefferson and the other founding fathers. The colossal Statue of Liberty in New York City is the sacred symbol that has long separated the US from China and the rest of the world.

For human progress, the evolution of the American republic equally needs its Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian principles

For human progress, the evolution of the American republic equally needs its Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian principles. With his “America first” policy, Trump has embarked on creating a Hamiltonian America without acknowledging the Jeffersonian pulse of the nation.

By design, the American system created by the founding fathers works in chaos but with the harmonious vitality of Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian elements. Even while the Hamiltonian evangelical fervour appears to project occasional political power, the inertia embedded in the Jeffersonian spirit of “deep state” – a decentralised army of patriotic public servants, diplomats and mainstream media – keeps the nation on the move in unison. These Jeffersonians, as well as the elected Democratic Party (and some Republican) representatives in Congress, are today like a school of fish – without a single leader – marching towards justice to realise America’s Empire of Liberty.

Patrick Mendis, PhD, a Harvard Kennedy School’s former Rajawali senior fellow, is an associate-in-research at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Pangoal Institution in Beijing. He is the author of Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and American Destiny Create a Pacific New World Order. See