As voters in the United States prepare to choose a new president on November 3, the South China Morning Post will explore the potential ramifications for China. In this first part of the series, Shi Jiangtao examines the high stakes for China, which both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have branded a central threat to US interests.
Would another four years of Trump mean an inevitable cold war-style confrontation? For all the Biden camp’s anti-China rhetoric, he has claimed to have spent more time with Xi Jinping than any other Western leader – raising the question of whether a change at the White House offers the chance of a reset in the rapidly souring relationship.
While Joe Biden’s campaign may be widely perceived as offering American voters a “return to normalcy” after the Trump era, few expect the same when it comes to US-China relations.
While the former vice-president is currently ahead in the polls, many pundits expect the race to tighten, and China is likely to become one of main foreign policy areas where the two candidates look to gain an edge by exploiting their rival’s perceived vulnerabilities.
Both Donald Trump and Biden once bragged about their personal connection to Chinese President Xi Jinping, but have markedly shifted their stance in the past few months, sparring fiercely over who will be tougher on the Communist Party.
With the future hanging in the balance, Beijing has dramatically toned down its nationalist rhetoric and largely stayed reticent about the upcoming elections.
Such uncharacteristic caution is highly revealing about what Beijing really thinks about the forthcoming elections – a make-or-break moment for US-China relations, according to former diplomats and observers.
An enduring rivalry may seem inevitable as things settle into a more confrontational paradigm, spelling an end to the decades-long age of engagement. But Beijing appears hopeful that the 2020 elections could still open up the chance for a reset.
“Given the historical importance of the 2020 elections, there is a fleeting window of opportunity for both sides to climb down from the cold war-like confrontation, whoever wins the White House,” said Pang Zhongying, an international affairs specialist at Ocean University of China.
But given the uncertain outcome, and allegations by US intelligence that China has tried to interfere in the electoral process, Beijing is wary of being seen to favour one candidate over the other.
According to Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, Beijing’s reticence underlines the leadership’s wariness about the deepening hostility between the two countries, which is the biggest headwind China has faced over the past four decades.
Over the past year, China has misread the Trump administration’s determination to confront China over Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang and many other issues, Gu said.
“Apparently the top leadership has set the tone and begun preparations for different scenarios in the US elections,” he said, adding that after a roller coaster year, “I don’t think Beijing would want to be caught off guard again”.
George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said Beijing is most likely to expect changes in style, not substance, in US policy in the next four years, and are minded to see what happens in November before responding or recalibrating their position.
“Discretion being the better part of valour, perhaps Beijing is resigned to the fractious nature of relations with the US in the foreseeable future and doesn’t want to rock the boat unnecessarily at this point,” he said.
Beneath Beijing’s uneasy calm, there is an ongoing debate within China’s foreign policy establishment, which is divided over whether Biden or a second Trump term is “the lesser of two evils” for China.
For months, Chinese experts and government advisers have been calling on the leadership to look beyond the Trump presidency, which from Beijing’s perspective was predominantly responsible for the steep, precipitous decline in the US-China relations.
Trump has repeatedly suggested that Beijing has decided to root for Biden – an assessment backed by William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre – but this may not be the case.
In a message directed at the Trump White House early this month, China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai appealed publicly for dialogue and dismissed concerns that Beijing wanted to wait out the Trump presidency and had pinned its hopes on his Democratic rival.
“We are ready to work with the current administration to search for solutions to existing problems anytime, anywhere, even today or tomorrow,” he told an online foreign policy seminar hosted by the Brookings Institution on August 13.
“American domestic dynamics are well beyond what we can predict or influence. We have no intention or interest in getting involved.”
For moderates and internationalists in China who favour the former vice-president, a Biden White House would offer a return to the steady and moderate approach of the Obama years.
Robert Daly, the director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute, said Biden would adopt less inflammatory rhetoric, re-engage with international institutions, seek opportunities to cooperate with Beijing and conduct policy according to a strategic blueprint.
“All of these factors would bring a degree of stability to a still highly contentious US-China relationship,” he said.
But Daly also believes that a Biden presidency would also seek to work with US allies that share its concerns about China.
Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, argued that neither candidate was an appealing choice for Beijing, saying Biden was unlikely to return to the engagement policy that prevailed for the past four decades given the negative perceptions of China across the US.
But Luft added: “For Beijing the choice is between detente and war, and Biden is more likely to offer the former.”
A Biden victory would be “an opportunity for the two sides to turn a new leaf, to revive the frank strategic dialogue and to dislodge US foreign policy from the China psychosis from which it has been suffering under Trump”, he said.
Although a Biden administration would be more “diplomatic” and willing to discuss areas of common interest with Beijing, Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the New York-based Asia Society’s centre on US-China relations, said it would not be substantially more “friendly” to Beijing’s global ambitions.
The 77-year-old Biden, whom Xi Jinping once described as “my old friend”, has a long history of dealing with China and is widely seen as a supporter of the engagement policy that dates back to Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to Beijing in 1972.
He was one of the first US senators to visit China and met the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in April 1979, just three months after Beijing and Washington established official ties.
Biden told a Council on Foreign Relations Event in 2018 that “I’ve spent more time in private meetings with Xi Jinping than any world leader”. By Biden’s count, the duo had about “25 hours of private dinners” together during his 2011 and 2013 visits to China and Xi’s 2012 visit to the US.
Before he adopted a tougher stance on China this year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden frequently challenged Trump’s confrontational approach to China, and denied that it was in competition with the US.
According to Robert Sutter, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, a tipping point for both candidates’ election campaigns came in March when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian promoted a conspiracy theory that the US military had introduced the coronavirus to Wuhan.
“Biden’s hardening has been remarkable, and so has Trump’s since April,” he said, arguing it was driven by electoral calculations and growing hostility among the US public.
Biden and many of his foreign policy advisers who served in previous Democratic administrations have often been criticised for being soft on China. But Schell described them as “a tough, smart group who believe that Beijing’s present ambitions … are excessive, illegal, dangerous and unacceptable”.
“However, that said, I think that if Beijing and the Communist Party really did want to work out some new frameworks – and not just engage in delaying tactics – these men and women would be a lot better negotiating partners than Donald Trump,” he said.
While, the Democratic Party’s platform for the 2020 elections – formally adopted at its national convention in mid-August – rejected Trump’s highly confrontational approach, it also promised to continue to push back against China’s attempts to “undermine international norms” and resist its policies in areas such as the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Although Biden promised to get tough with China by building a united front of American allies and partners and to restore America’s global leadership in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine in January, observers remained sceptical about its impact, especially considering rising international opposition to US unilateralism.
“I don’t think America’s China policies will be materially different if Biden wins. The systemic nature of the adversarial relationship means that individuals may manage things differently but will almost certainly not alter the trajectory,” said Magnus.
He said it was “wishful thinking” that Biden could take things back to the status quo ante or repair all the damage Trump had done to relations with US allies. “I hope it happens but we should be prepared for a better but not necessarily restored relationship with allies,” Magnus said.
Luft said whoever wins will have to face the “inconvenient realities” of what he called the “post-American era”. He said the 77-year-old Biden will be a one-term president and, as such, he was not likely to want to waste his precious time in office on arm-wrestling with China.
“His hands will be full trying to revive the US economy and prevent the country’s slide toward a civil war. Trump on the other hand is likely to be a lame duck president, especially if the [Republican Party] loses its senate majority. As such he is likely to be even more erratic and unbridled than he has been in his first term. For China, the thought of riding the Trump roller coaster for another four years is unsettling, to put it mildly.”
Some observers pointed out the inherent contradictions with Trump’s thinking on China, especially his self-defeating isolationist stance when trying to enlist global support to counter China after alienating allies and withdrawing the US from its global leadership role.
“While the Trump Administration had good cause to challenge China to level the US-China playing field – and it is out-of-level and unreciprocal in almost every area of exchange – there is no doubt that in other areas his erratic leadership has harmed American leadership,” Schell said.
“Sometimes it seems that both Trump and Xi are in a competition to see who can alienate more potential friends and allies.”
Whoever wins, the biggest challenge for both countries remains how to map out a workable strategy for the world’s two biggest economies to “coexist in a less antagonistic way”, he argued.
“Even as the US and China may decouple to some degree, because of global challenges like pandemics, climate change and nuclear proliferation, we still need a post-engagement strategy for some kinds of interaction, and no one has bothered to draw up that road map,” Schell said.
However, analysts who believe Xi may be counting on a second Trump term pointed to the long-term opportunities his re-election would offer China.
While a second Trump term would mean four more years of “personalised, impulsive, and relentlessly hostile China policy”, Daly argued his policies have damaged US interests and the country’s global standing.
Trump’s behaviour in office has turned many ordinary Chinese against the US for the first time since 1979 and alienated leaders and populations around the world, Daly said. He also argued that Trump has renounced American global leadership just as China feels ready to exercise it.
“Chinese nationalists will therefore favour President Trump’s re-election even though they find his administration obnoxious,” Daly continued.
“China’s greatest interest in the presidential election is not to promote the victory of a particular candidate, but to see American democracy further discredited. A divisive, chaotic election that causes global observers to doubt the wisdom of the American political system will suit Beijing and Moscow well.”
We learn something every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned the day before was wrong.