Trump’s ‘America First’ meets China’s ‘community of common destiny’

A member of staff from Chinese government adjusts U.S. and Chinese national flags in Beijing

Photo REUTERS/Jason Lee

Just as President Donald Trump has reached back into U.S. history to draw inspiration for his “America First” policy from President Andrew Jackson’s mid-19th century populism, so too is Chinese President Xi Jinping reaching back to the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago — which lasted longer than the entire existence of the U.S. — for inspiration. Xi’s idea of a “new era” of global relations based on a “community of common destiny” is drawn from the concept of tianxia — or “all under heaven,” living in harmonious coexistence — that reigned during that ancient era.
Jacksonian-style “America First” policies have never been attempted in our age of interdependence that was largely created by liberal internationalist policies of the U.S. during the 20th century. Nor has the Chinese concept of tianxia ever been tried on a world scale among highly distinct civilizations and political systems tightly tethered by globalization.
In The WorldPost this week, we examine the conjunction of these two opposite historical resonances coming together at the same time. And we check the claims of harmonious cooperation along China’s new Silk Road — spanning from Eurasia to Africa — to test how the aspiration of a common destiny is playing out in reality.
Prominent Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang outlines the history and logic of the tianxia system in ancient China. The Zhou dynasty “sought to bring the whole world together under one tent as a way to eliminate any negative external influence, and thereby conflict, within what was then considered the civilized world,” he writes from Beijing. Tianxia “defines the concept of ‘the political’ as the art of co-existing through transforming hostility into hospitality — a clear alternative to the more modern concepts of German legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s recognition of politics as ‘us vs. them,’ Hans Morgenthau’s ‘realist’ struggle for power and Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations.’”
The philosophical basis of the tianxia concept, Zhao explains, is the Confucian notion of “live and let live” that seeks to minimize conflict instead of maximize self-interest. For Zhao, such a mode of coexistence is the most rational formula for peace and stability in today’s diverse world. “A ‘tianxia peace’ for our hyper-connected, interdependent world … would have to be built on the broader foundation of a compatible universalism that includes all civilizations — not an exclusive unilateral claim of one civilization to universality.”
In a more contemporary context, one of China’s leading strategists, Yan Xuetong, addresses anxiety that the U.S. and China are headed into a new Cold War. He believes that kind of frozen relationship can be avoided because, under Trump, the U.S. is stepping back from global leadership while China is not yet stepping up, and neither the U.S. nor China are engaging in ideological competition or waging proxy wars like those of the Soviet era.
“To be sure, China-U.S. competition will inevitably grow more severe in 2018,” Yan writes from Beijing. “At the moment, China appears to have more confidence than the U.S. in this competition because it believes the Trump administration suffers from a crippling lack of credibility both at home and abroad. The most crucial factor in international competition between superpowers is strategic credibility.”
He concludes that the Trump administration has “undermined its capacity to shape international opinions and regain strategic credibility. If that is the case, how can it initiate a new Cold War even if it wants to?”
The ability of the U.S. to shape the strategic landscape going forward is further impacted by the tightening, if unbalanced, links between Russia and China. Writing from Vladivostok, Artyom Lukin argues that the hostility Russia has generated in the U.S. has driven it closer to China politically, as the two powers face a common adversary — but this comes at the risk of economic domination as its giant neighbor builds up its new Silk Road routes across the Eurasian steppes. “Their [political] closeness,” Lukin says, “cannot conceal the reality that China’s economy is more than eight times bigger than Russia’s, and the gap continues to grow. It remains to be seen if, in the long run, this economic asymmetry will develop into political inequality, with Russia becoming a tributary state along China’s Silk Roads.”
Writing from the Sri Lankan port city of Hambantota, Jonathan Hillman warns of a similar risk already evident in South Asia. “In December, a Chinese state-owned enterprise took over a port here in this small fishing town on Sri Lanka’s southern coast,” he reports. “The port was never intended to be Chinese-owned and operated, but it was Chinese-financed and built, creating a debt that Sri Lanka could not repay. As Sri Lanka celebrates 70 years of independence from British imperial rule, some fear the nation now faces a new form of colonialism.”
For Hillman, “the episode has turned tiny Hambantota into something of a global lighthouse. Sitting in the Indian Ocean, it serves as a warning about the hazards of China’s global infrastructure push, which could make small economies dependent even while helping them develop.” Others have gone so far as to coin a new phrase for the potential consequence of China’s economic expansion: “creditor imperialism.”
If history is any guide, as Oxford scholar Peter Frankopan points out, China’s new Silk Road initiative in the 21st century will be replete with the same kind of benefits and drawbacks as the old Silk Road trading routes millennia ago.
As a concept of governance rooted in the wisdom of one of the longest surviving civilizations on the planet, tianxia is certainly a worthy ideal. Its viability in today’s interdependent world of plural identities will be determined by what actually transpires on the ground for all those under heaven.

Nathan Gardels in The Washington Post

co-founding editor of OffGuardian (retired)

Filed under: empire watch, latest, multipolar world


co-founding editor of OffGuardian (retired)

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Size of economy is less important than purchasing power per capita. I would prefer a nation of 20 million where the median salary were $50,000 than a nation of one billion where the median salary was $15,000.

Mulga Mumblebrain
Mulga Mumblebrain

Chinese wages have been growing dtrongly for over ten years, and China’s economy is more and more based on domestic consumption, while tens of millions of Chinese travel overseas every year. In the USA, in contrast, median wages have stagnated for forty years, and the serfs are buried under unpayable debt. I know which society I’d prefer to live in as an average citizen.


Reading this I feel like I’m rummaging around in a big pudding looking for the sixpence.
China wants to build a tent full of harmony? Doesn’t matter where (or when) you get your ideology, top down is authoritarian. We are going to have to, at some point, build from the bottom up.
China will grow bigger around the world than Russia? People, listen, Russia does not want to take over the world.
China thinks that ‘saving face’ is really important on a world stage and the US are making a total pratt of themselves – well, yes.
China has bought a port? And? Don’t they own many of Britain’s ports?
Insubstantial waffle with a tiny bit of gaslighting in the use of the passive where Russia appears to be the culprit for hostility generated. C minus.

kevin morris

There is an old Chinese tale about when God made humans, he baked them in a huge oven. Many were badly burned and these became the black people on earth. Others were undercooked and these became the pale skinned people on earth. God then looked upon those that were cooked to perfection and these of course became the Chinese. The story explains well the exalted view that the Chinese have of themselves and which in many ways illustrates that self importance that is so similar to the US’s own sense of manifest destiny. China’s own chauvinistic view of itself and others, together with many aspects of China suggests that we really should be less sanguine about China’s growing power in the world.
Those who believe that China offers the promise of a better world than the US has given us in recent years should look closely at the actions of the Chinese state. China is a one party state. It executes more prisoners than any other country in the world. It operates a slave labour system which in part explains many of the cheap Chinese unbranded products on sale in the west. Rather like the SS in Nazi Germany, the People’s Liberation Army operates its own industries under the Laoghang slave labour system. Corruption amongst state officials is massive and with little by way of civil society, those lawyers trying to help call such behaviour to account, risk their own imprisonment. A view expressed on this site is that at least the Communist Party executes its own corrupt officials. Sadly, what often happens is that scapegoats are found whilst the guilty continue their corrupt ways.
China believes that the 21st century is theirs. As China grows in economic strength it behaves increasingly as the US tends to. Remember how China treats Tibet, an independent country it has occupied in 1949 and still occupies. The ecological damage China has done there is massive; the cultural damage through the destruction of monasteries and the fact that a secondary education in Tibetan is virtually impossible.. With the building of the railway to Lhasa and the massive influx of Han settlers given generous grants by the Chinese government, Tibetans are now a minority and second class citizens in their own country. A few years ago Desmond Tutu wished to invite the Dalai Lama to celebrate his birthday with him, Diplomatic moves by the Chinese government led to South Africa’s refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama. On its own, perhaps a trivial event but indicative of what to expect as China grows in power and influence.
As with most readers of OffG. I find it very easy to feel despair at the US’s increasingly disruptive role within the world. That said, having watched closely developments in China since the Days of Chairman Mao, I see little reason to celebrate China’s growing role within the world and much to fear. I note that whilst Russia has good relations with China, she seems anxious to increase India’s role within Asia as a check against Chinese power.


@kevin. Agreed that Chinese Capitalist Imperialism is as much to be feared as Anglo Capitalist Imperialism, with all their attendant horrors of wage slavery and ecological destruction. But there are one or two little redeeming features: the Chinese hang bankers — in the West, even at the Nurenberg, “no one hangs a banker”; and South African govt acted prudently in this case because the Dalai Lama is a CIA asset, inasmuch as Tibetan Buddhism plus Tibetan Nationalism gives Anglo Imperialism some badly needed “soft power” for attacking China across the roof of the world.

Mulga Mumblebrain
Mulga Mumblebrain

Sinophobic, racist, fear and hate-mongering. China is THE target for all true Western supremacists, who find the idea of ‘mere Asiatics’ rising to global power frightening and enraging.


“A new phrase… ‘Creditor imperialism'”. So this think tank guy Hillman and WaPo journo Gardels have never read or heard of Perkins the “economic hit man”? Even Hollywood has used Perkins as a plot driver – see the excellent recent Owen Wilson escape movie (whose title escapes me; I’m currently in an IMDB free zone).

Mulga Mumblebrain
Mulga Mumblebrain

True, but the ‘economic hit-men’ were Whites, and that is a vital difference for all Sinophobe racists.


A “community of common destiny”, drawn from the concept of tianxia — or “all under heaven,” living in harmonious coexistence —
A beautiful philosophy: only when applied to the BRI Silk Road …it becomes a farrago of fantasies? Empiricism should at least demand some quantifiable relationship with reality? China used more cement in four years than America did in a century [6.6bn tonnes 2011-2013 v 4bn tonnes 1900-1999: David Harvey; USGS] in debt-funded expansion …to build it’s way out of recession. Now it wants to export it’s overproduction in cement, aluminum, glass, steel… and make no mistake: it is existentially important for global capitalism that it does.
If deep decarbonisation is a concern (and it should be): globally, capitalism will have to install the equivalent of 6.25 Three Gorge Dams per annum until 2050 (200 megadams or 3,600 nuclear power stations) to replace the energy contained in one Cubic Mile of Oil (CMO) by 2050. We currently consume 3 CMO pa. If not, the oil runs out.
Now apply compounding exponential growth to the necessary resource depletion (3% pa doubling consumption, pollution and waste every 33 years) and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (EROEI) to the capitalist paradigm of debt-fuelled growth, expansionism, extractivism …is it broken, or what?
So, not to isolate China …but we grew the global economy into a planet consuming capitalist cancer that we simply cannot grow our way out of.
A “community of common destiny”, drawn from the concept of tianxia — or “all under heaven,” living in harmonious coexistence —* is a beautiful philosophy, which to a degree is still quite achievable by ecological socialist evolutionary means …only not by capitalist expansion. QED.

Mulga Mumblebrain
Mulga Mumblebrain

The Chinese have created a high-level committee to plan for a transition to an ‘Ecological Civilization’ that can be sustainable in the long-term. No Western country is engaged in ANY similar effort, and most are still wedded to capitalist destruction through ‘growth’.

Dave Hansell
Dave Hansell

A potential cold war and freezing of relations may well be a potential scenario. However, The Great Game remains alive in the delusions of those with a recent imperial record and current imperial ambitions to suck the resources of the Eurasian landmass into the insatiable mouths of those who consider themselves exclusive and posessing superior values to the rest of humanity.
A hot war appears the greater threat at present. Particularly given that some key players, China, Russia and Iran amongst them, are looking to ditch the trade in petro dollars – which is the only thing keeping the US economy afloat – for alternatives. Of the last people to think about trying that one was hung and the other had a bayonet shoved up his backside and their countries are smoking ruins, failed states courtesy of the do as we say gangsters.
However, this time those who Smedley-Butler described as racketeers are not squaring up to small fry like Iraq and Libya. To pinch everyone’s toys in this temper tantrum they risk destroying the planet. Not that any rational onlooker observing the way they behave would put it past them.

Richard guillemette
Richard guillemette

why don’t you just worry about yourself before china. The US is the global destructor in the world today. A menace for the entire human race.So stop giving advice we are not idiots we see very well ubder your disguise