Chinese Internet users have taken to referring to the American President with a nickname, “Chuan Jianguo”, that translates into “Trump building China”. The message is in their view, the four turbulent years of the Donald Trump presidency, as unpredictable as they have been for China’s relations with the United States, have in the broadest sense only hastened China’s ascendancy, a perception that has been deepened by the Trump administration’s botched handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This fairly predominant view hints at a dilemma China finds itself in ahead of the U.S. election , as it confronts the prospect of either four more years of a President who Beijing is still struggling to figure out, or of a more predictable candidate who, many in China believe, will be far more effective in repairing America’s image abroad and rebuilding relations with its allies. As one recent article in the Global Times , the hawkish Communist Party-run tabloid, put it, reflecting this ambivalence, “...if Biden wins, the U.S. will remain tough on China”, but “tactically, the U.S. approach would be more predictable, and Biden is much smoother to deal with than Trump.”
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This is a far cry from four years ago, when although prospects of a Trump presidency appeared slim, policymakers in Beijing were openly batting for a Republican win. Hillary Clinton was widely disliked in China, and the fear was she would be vocal on issues such as human rights. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, was seen as a businessman and “dealmaker” who Beijing’s Mandarins, in hindsight, completely underestimated. Their envoy in Washington was dispatched to court the Trump family, with the impression that throwing a few deals their way would lead to smooth relations.
Four years on, Beijing is still grappling with the continuing impact of a bruising trade and technology war. Mr. Trump has shattered the myth that economic interdependency between the world’s two biggest economies would be both an inevitability and a guarantor of stability. Now, the prospect of outright confrontation is being debated openly on both sides of the Pacific, and the belief among some in Beijing is that four more years would push a relationship that is on the brink into the abyss. “Given the polarized political dynamics at home,” wrote strategic expert Zhao Minghao, a fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing and a member of the China National Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, “Trump may continue on his path of confrontation and hostility against China. If elected to a second term, Trump would continue to push for economic decoupling from China and has promised to ‘end U.S. reliance on China’.”
Yet for all the bluster, Mr. Trump has only achieved mixed results on the trade front. As the Wall Street Journal reported on October 26, he “didn’t achieve the central objective of reversing a U.S. decline in manufacturing” through his trade and tariff war. The trade deficit with China has risen this year and is now back to where it was when he took office. He has, however, pushed Beijing to make concessions on trade that it had never done before. Tariffs remain on about $370 billion worth of Chinese goods following the ‘phase one’ trade deal. Mr. Trump has clipped the wings of China’s soaring tech giants, some of which are now floundering without access to critical U.S. technology. Domestic industries have been given greater protection, although, as the Wall Street Journal noted, gains have been offset by higher costs thanks to tariffs imposed by China in retaliation, which have also resulted in some factory job losses in the U.S.
Two great services
Beyond the heavy costs of the trade war, in the view of some Chinese thinkers, Mr. Trump has still rendered China’s rulers two great services. His unsteady rule, and particularly the administration’s handling of COVID-19, has not only given China a huge propaganda win at home — and for the Communist Party helped rewrite the narrative following its own botched response to the outbreak at Wuhan — but has also more broadly, as the scholar Julian Gewirtz wrote recently in Foreign Affairs , deepened the perception within China “that the United States is rapidly declining and that this deterioration has caused Washington to frantically try to suppress China’s rise.” As he says, Mr. Trump has turned “a long-term risk into an immediate crisis that demands the urgent mobilization of the Chinese system”, and in many ways, has consequently emboldened Chinese leaders to double down on policies that sparked the great divergence in the first place, from accelerating State support to Chinese companies in a renewed quest for self-reliance, to taking a harder line on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and perhaps on China’s periphery as well.
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View on Biden
No one in China expects a potential Biden presidency to reverse any of these trends, which most people are aware go beyond Mr. Trump and now have a bipartisan resonance in Washington. As Diao Daming, a scholar on China-U.S. relations at Renmin University in Beijing, put it recently, “the Democrats have accepted the fundamental stance of great power competition laid by the Republicans” and can “only make tactical-level adjustments”. Where Mr. Biden may offer some relief, in the view of Li Haidong at China Foreign Affairs University, is that “he is definitely smoother to deal with”, and as he told the Global Times , will likely lead an administration quite similar to what Beijing was familiar with during the Obama years. At the very least, he expects, there would be “more effective communication” and Mr. Biden would seek some common ground on issues such as climate change.
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There is, however, little doubt that Mr. Biden will still pursue many of the same Trumpian positions on China, be even more vocal on human rights issues, and as Wei Zongyou, a scholar at the Center for American Studies of Fudan University, argued recently, “possibly form an international united front against China” working more closely, for instance, with Europe, “instead of acting alone or deserting U.S. leadership”. The concern in China is he may hence be even more effective in pursuing American goals, and doing so “without resorting to self-defeating, unilateral tariff wars.”
So regardless of who emerges on top on November 3, the consensus in Beijing very much seems to be this is an election that promises no good outcome.