No backing down – United States President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Facebook

With Donald Trump’s nationalism on full display, China’s media and commentariat – and Xi Jinping himself – seek to distinguish the Chinese leader from the US president, painting him as a benevolent internationalist who deeply cares about the “shared future for mankind.”

Yet like Trump, Xi is in many respects a stringent nationalist. The fundamental difference is that while the former publicly insists he always puts America first, the latter and his propagandists don’t dare to admit that Xi also puts China first.

“America First” rhetoric and policy are admittedly among the few things Trump, who has flip-flopped on many issues since his election victory in November 2016, has been consistent on.

For instance, though his tone varies, in all his key pronouncements, such as the inaugural speech, the State of the Union address, and remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump unambiguously states that he always puts the country and the people he was elected to serve first.

In some of his main speeches, both at home and abroad, he also says he expects the leaders of other countries to do the same thing.

While people are probably right to criticize the manner, the extent and the efficacy of Trump’s “America First” doctrine, they hardly disagree with him that his primary duty is to serve his country and fellow Americans, because such an allegiance is normal and true to any national leader or politician.

Indeed, every political leader in the world does, or is supposed to do, what Trump says and does. The difference is that, unlike America’s 45th president, many of them don’t dare to utter it so publicly and bluntly.

That said, should Trump’s nationalist posture go too far, it could damage both US and global prosperity. That’s why it’s understandable and justified that people in the US and around the world have voiced their apprehensions and objections to his “America First” rhetoric and policy.

Some countries, notably China, have vehemently criticized Trump’s “America First” doctrine mainly because it goes against their core interests.

These are also the main reasons that, since his election triumph, besides denouncing his policies, the Chinese media and commentariat have overtly painted Xi as a better alternative to Trump.

For instance, a China Daily columnist argues that while Trump’s doctrine and Xi’s thought share some similarities, they have four “fundamental differences.” The former embraces (1) protectionism, (2) nationalism, (3) realism and bilateralism and (4) a zero-sum concept of security, whereas the latter champions (1) two-way neo-globalization, (2) a hybrid of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, (3) idealism and multilateralism and (4) positive-sum and common security, respectively.

In other words, while Trump is a realist and nationalist who pursues a shortsighted zero-sum approach to international affairs, Xi is an idealist and internationalist, who holds an optimistic view of international political life. Such a benign picture of Xi is also painted by the same author in another piece.

But contrary to what this columnist, other Chinese media outlets and analysts, and Xi Jinping himself claim, like Trump, Xi is deeply nationalist and realist. In some cases, the Chinese president is even more so than his American counterpart.

Xi’s “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” campaign is similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Both are aimed at reviving their respective countries’ past grandeur even though they don’t specify which historical eras they refer to.

Like Trump, Xi is advocating a nationalistic approach to achieve such a nationalistic goal. In other words, if Trump advocates “America First,” Xi follows “China First.”

While it may be true that Xi’s massive trade and investment scheme benefits China and participating countries, the Asian giant undoubtedly wins far more from it because the BRI is, by and large, a ‘China First’ initiative

Xi and China’s highly censored media and commentators always cite Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as an example of the Asian behemoth’s support for an open economy, globalization and free trade, or its idealism, cosmopolitanism and multilateralism.

While it may be true that this massive trade and investment scheme benefits China and participating countries, the Asian giant undoubtedly wins far more from it because the BRI is, by and large, a “China First” initiative.

According to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for all Beijing’s “official rhetoric about the BRI being open and global, it is a China-centric effort,” as out of all contractors participating in Beijing-backed projects, 89% are Chinese companies.

Xi has overtly vowed that his country “will keep its door wide open and not close it” because for him, in a thinly veiled dig at Trump’s protectionist stance, protectionism is like “locking oneself in a dark room.”

But under his leadership, the People’s Republic is still reluctant to open up its huge markets. In fact, like the Trump administration, the Chinese government is pursuing a mercantilist trade and investment policy. The difference is that, while the former is adopting such a posture in order to reduce America’s massive trade deficit, especially with China, the latter is doing so in order to maintain its huge trade surplus, notably with the US.

On security matters, Xi is also a hard realist and nationalist.

Under his rule, the People’s Liberation Army has quickly modernized and improved its readiness for war. To mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s founding  last year, China held a massive military parade at Zhurihe, its largest and most advanced military base. At that parade – the first such event overseen by Xi and the first-ever military parade held by the PRC to commemorate its Army Day since its founding in 1949 – and at a ceremony event two days later, Xi urged the world’s biggest standing army to be ready to win wars.

Since Xi became China’s leader in 2012, the Asian giant has massively expanded and militarized in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most disputed and strategically vital maritime spaces. For years, Beijing denied its controversial maritime adventure, which has been criticized by other countries, including the US. However, it has now not only admitted but also hailed it. At the ruling Communist Party’s five-yearly congress last autumn, Xi boasted that Beijing’s “construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen steady progress.”

Though he made no reference to the South China Sea or any specific territorial disputes in which China is currently involved, in his speech to mark the PLA’s 90th anniversary, Xi vowed: “We will never allow [anyone] at any time or in any form, to attempt to separate any part of Chinese territory, and nor shall anyone expect that we will brook any attempt to compromise our national sovereignty, security, or development interests.”

The problem for China is that the extensive territory it claims belongs to it in the South China Sea is based on a very dubious line, which reaches as far as 1,900 kilometers from its mainland and is less than 320km from some coastal areas of other claimant states, such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. What’s more, in 2016, an international arbitral tribunal invalidated many claims and actions of China in the contested area, including its claim of historic rights to resources within its so-called “nine-dash line.”

Although such a landmark ruling was legally binding per international law, it is unenforceable because, like many other international tribunals, the Hague-based arbitral tribunal has no power of enforcement. That’s why as a powerful country, China vehemently rejected the verdict and used its new-found economic, political and military power to force the Philippines and other countries and organizations to sideline the ruling.

This and many other examples prove that under Xi’s authoritarian and powerful rule, the Asian giant is increasingly using its hugely asymmetric size and power to coerce other countries, including its smaller neighbors, to toe its line on all that Beijing sees as its core interests.

In fact, the view that China is a coercive or even a bully state is widely maintained in many journalistic, academic, and political circles, especially those in the West.

Against this background, it is questionable, or even laughable, to depict China’s Xi as an idealist or internationalist.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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