After four years of unpredictability and US President Donald Trump tweeting “whatever is on his mind in the middle of the night”, China would probably prefer the relative stability that a Joe Biden presidency would bring, America’s former ambassador to Beijing says.
The comments from Max Baucus – the top US envoy to China between 2014-17, and an adviser on China policy to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign – can be added to a maelstrom that views on whether Beijing would prefer four more years of Trump or a more ostensibly conventional White House, a debate which has raged for most of Trump’s first term.
Yet, sources inside China and experts on the country vary wildly in their perception of how the US election is viewed in Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound.
In a wide-ranging interview with the South China Morning Post , Baucus acknowledged China would be “somewhat conflicted” ahead of next week’s election. But conversations with well-placed contacts in Beijing have led him to believe China would prefer more stable superpower ties.
“I think China finds Trump a bit of a nuisance, but they also find Trump leading the US down the primrose path of decline, which obviously helps China,” Baucus said, adding any remaining reformers within the Chinese government would also be emboldened by a “restoration of the resilience of American democracy”.
“On the other hand, President Xi Jinping – as the Chinese do generally – wants stability, he doesn’t want to rock the boat.
“In the Biden presidency, there’s more stability. You don’t see a president, just on his Twitter account, say whatever is on his mind in the middle of the night, or a president that doesn’t work with his advisers.”
Trump has also said Beijing would prefer a Biden presidency, telling Fox News this month that “if Biden wins, China will own the United States”.
But others, including Long Yongtu , China’s former vice-minister of foreign trade and point man during China’s 15-year talks to join the World Trade Organization nearly two decades ago, have said Trump’s re-election would be welcomed in Beijing.
Echoing other advisers, Baucus said if Biden was elected he would review Trump’s China policies, such as trade tariffs, sanctions and export controls. But given the bipartisan support for many of them, they may be there to stay, he added.
“There is going to be pressure to maintain current tariffs on Chinese imports to the US, to maintain the Entity List, sanctions on companies and actors that violate the provisions of the Entity List,” he said.
“Same with any companies with ties to the [People’s Liberation Army], the human rights sanctions – provisions related to Hong Kong’s special status for example – a lot of that will continue for a while until he figures out exactly what he wants to do with China.”
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, key Biden advisers Jeffrey Prescott and Brian McKeon said the Democratic challenger would “immediately consult America’s main allies before deciding on the future of US tariffs on China”.
Baucus, who served as a Democratic Party senator for Montana from 1978 to 2014, said he did not see sanctions on Chinese officials and entities for human rights abuses in Xinjiang or related to Hong Kong’s national security law being lifted “for the foreseeable future”.
Such a reset would require an end to “the free fall” in relations, and an about-face in the policies of Xi, who Baucus said has “given himself a black eye” over Xinjiang and its coverage in global media.
Baucus was sceptical as to whether the Obama administration he served under could have done more to prevent China’s “inevitable” course of action on Hong Kong.
“The United States, the UK, Canada, European countries have expressed deep concern about human rights in Hong Kong. But to be candid, I don’t know where the leverage is to do much about it,” said the retired diplomat.
Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang were core issues for Xi Jinping who would do whatever it takes to protect them, he added.
Baucus said there was a noticeable shift in China’s behaviour during his time in the country.
Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” initiative, its “salami slicing” territorial expansion in the South China Sea and its draconian social credit system signalled a turn towards a more insular domestic policy and an aggressive foreign policy, he said.
Since then, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy combined with Trump’s “American First” doctrine has helped bilateral ties deteriorate.
“Many people mentioned the Thucydides Trap, and I think there’s some merit to that. Not that we’re definitely going to fall into the trap, but we’re certainly moving in that direction,” Baucus said in reference to the voguish theory that war is inevitable when an emerging power encounters an incumbent one.
“And whether the trap springs depends upon how well we manage the relationship. But certainly some of that is accelerated by two presidents who somewhat fanned the flames of nationalism. ”