President Donald Trump’s term has coincided with the back end of a strategic shift towards confronting China; a trend in motion for years and publicly acknowledged since at least Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
There is bipartisan recognition in Washington, D.C. that China is America’s next great strategic threat, and much of the coming administration’s foreign policy will have one eye on undermining Beijing and maintaining American hegemony.
The Trump Administration has been hard on China, launching a wide-ranging trade war, confronting Beijing in territorial flashpoints, pushing back on human rights abuses, and taking on Chinese diplomatic, corporate, and technological influence in the U.S. and abroad.
All this is supercharged by the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump wants—and needs, given his administration’s unpopular handling of the crisis—to pin on Beijing.
China is both Trump’s excuse and his strongest foreign policy attack line against Biden, who he claims will sell the U.S. out to Beijing.
There is not much daylight between the two candidates on China, though Trump’s strategy will likely be more overtly aggressive and unilateral than Biden’s.
“I suspect many in the Chinese leadership are torn,” Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek.
“On the one hand, Trump’s retreat from international organizations, trashing of U.S. allies, has been a gift to Xi.
“Trump’s trade policies have backfired, with Chinese exports to the U.S. up, no major decline in trade deficit, and U.S. capital is flowing into China’s more open financial markets.”
China predicted much of this in 2016, said Jacques deLisle, an expert in Chinese law and politics at the University of Pennsylvania, which “inclines some in China—especially the more hawkish, nationalist, and perhaps overly confident elements—to see a second Trump term as a good thing.”
But this all came with costs. Manning said: “The relentless China-bashing, crusade against Huawei and more broadly, Chinese tech and the downward spiral of a U.S.-China relationship in free-fall is dangerous.”
DeLisle added: “Biden’s upside is predictability and stability; his downside for China is that he may be far more effective—more regular and competent in policy-making, more disciplined in implementation, and better able to cooperate with allies to bring pressure to bear on China.
“Trump’s downside is the chaos and the Cold War rhetoric; the upside is that he is not very effective—erratic, shallow commitment to adverse positions on issues that matter to China, and alienates allies and potential allies.”
National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said in August that Beijing would likely prefer Trump not to win the election because it considers the president “unpredictable.”
Manning said the bottom line is China may prefer Biden “because they see him as fact-based.”
“And though the broad consensus against China’s economic and military transgressions would not change much, Biden would likely move to put a floor under the relationship and begin to define what ‘strategic competitor’ means and doesn’t mean,” Manning said.
Pacifying the economic and technological warfare of the Trump years—and GOP threats of broad “decoupling” with Beijing—will be high on China’s list of priorities.
So too will be the continuing U.S. support for Taiwan—which China has vowed to absorb by force if necessary—and tensions in the South China Sea, touted as the most likely place for a U.S.-China military confrontation.
“Deepening enmity on both sides and race to the bottom increase fears of a drift toward military confrontation,” Manning said. “Xi and the CCP are looking to stabilize what would be a redefined, more distant relationship.”
DeLisle said this “sharpening, Cold War-like ideological tone in U.S.-China great power competition” is cause for concern within the CCP.
The Chinese “tend to be pragmatic, do not overly personalize the relationship, and know that they have to deal with the next president for at least four years,” Manning said.
“So, while they will tailor their responses, their perceptions of whichever candidate wins, they have no illusions that it will result in major policy shifts, at least in the near-term.”