Much of US president Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has centered around casting himself as the “tough on China” candidate. In March, he abruptly pivoted from praising Beijing for its handling of the pandemic to calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” then continued a relentless onslaught with bans on TikTok and WeChat, sanctions over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, arrests of Chinese researchers, and the shuttering of China’s consulate in Houston.
You might think that Beijing would be desperate to get a break from this breathless aggression. But the question of how China benefits the most from this US presidential election may not be as simple as a zero-sum trade-off between a Trump and a Joe Biden administration.
“Really what [Beijing wants] is for there to be a divide within the US, and between US and its allies,” said Emily de La Bruyère, co-founder of strategic consultancy Horizon Advisory, and an expert on China’s approach to global competition. And Trump, given his track record of polarizing the American populace, abandoning international organizations, and putting tariffs on European allies, would likely deliver the kind of division and discord that China is itching for.
“For the [Chinese Communist] Party, it came to realize that the world shaped by Trump’s moves is actually beneficial for them,” said Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “The Party is mainly betting on Trump’s re-election to lead to the continued decay of the democratic system in the US.”
A Biden win, meanwhile, wouldn’t guarantee the US will quickly recover from Trump’s divisive leadership—imagine Beijing’s glee if, for example, Trump loses but fails to promptly concede the election. Either way, a US distracted by internal politics will continue to be a win for China as it focuses on its economic recovery from the pandemic.
Heads I win, tails you lose?
One thing that numerous scholars seem to agree on is that US-China relations have entered a period of gloves-off rivalry that no single administration will dramatically alter. While tensions have most recently been marked by their trade and tech war, changes in how the two countries see each other can be traced back to 2008, when Beijing marked its ascendance by successfully hosting the Olympic Games and the US was mired in the financial crisis.
Xie Tao, dean of the international relations school at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, argued in a recent journal article (link in Chinese) that the “century-long shift in American politics”—manifested in an unprecedented degree of social divisions and political polarization—has created an “unprecedented crisis of US national identity” that has ushered in a new era in US-China relations.
In July, for example, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared the traditional approach of engaging with China to be a total failure, effectively dismantling the underpinnings of decades of ties between the two countries.
“China-US relations have come so far that it’ll never get back to the past,” Zhu Feng, the dean of the international relations school at Nanjing University, recently argued (link in Chinese) in the nationalistic tabloid Global Times. “We cannot but drop all illusions about China-US relations.”
While Diao Daming, a professor international relations at Renmin University, thinks Biden would be less confrontational (link in Chinese) than Trump, he expects even a Democratic administration to “basically accept the direction of a competitive China strategy.”
Though a Trump win would be more likely to result in a painful decoupling, China may be willing to accept this short-term pain for a longer-term gain in its status, according to Rush Doshi of the Brookings Institution. He argues that the Chinese Communist Party believes Trump is accelerating the fall of American hegemony and that Beijing’s grand strategy now hinges on expanding its own global influence to fill a growing vacuum left by the US.
“If Beijing thinks the US is in irreversible decline, then the outcome of the election is important in the short run, but over time it may not be as important,” said Doshi.
In that case, would a Biden victory put a question mark over China’s assessment of the US’s waning power, especially if he shores up America’s alliances? Not necessarily. Xie posits that the US national crisis is caused by a combination of developments, including America’s changing racial demographics and the rise of identity politics—changes many in China attribute to US liberals they associate with the Democratic camp.
De La Bruyère thinks Beijing is actually in an enviable win-win situation, primed to further its strategic goals worldwide no matter who’s in the White House. A Biden administration might favor a certain degree of cooperation with China, which would inject a bit more predictability into the relationship. On the other hand, Trump can be expected to continue taking an adversarial but scattershot approach, while further splintering from the very global order the US helped erect.
“If the US returns to a policy of engagement with China—a policy that Beijing has long banked on as a means to leapfrog the United States—that’s good for China,” de La Bruyère explained. “If you have an administration that speaks out against China but does not implement a larger strategic response, that’s also good for China.”
Even if Beijing is correct, and the US is in terminal decline, that doesn’t mean China’s global stature will inevitably rise. In fact, a growing number of countries are pushing back against its policies, and it is more disliked worldwide than ever before.
Globally, there is growing recognition—from regular citizens to the highest strata of governments—of the CCP’s human rights violations in places like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and increasing momentum to hold China accountable for its actions. And at international organizations like the UN, there are signs that China will encounter more obstacles ahead as more countries withhold their support for Beijing and make joint statements condemning the CCP’s actions.
China also can’t underestimate the role of activists lobbying for greater US and international pressure on Beijing. In the UK, for example, a campaign for a boycott of China’s 2022 Olympics over abuses in Xinjiang has come to the attention of British foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
Or take the issue of Hong Kong. While a vocal contingent of Hong Kong protesters favors Trump, seeing him as being tougher on China than Biden, founder of Washington-based advocacy group Hong Kong Democracy Council Samuel Chu thinks the political ground has shifted enough that Washington will take action on China over its crackdown on Hong Kong no matter which party is in power.
“Is Biden going to reverse all these US actions [on China]? No. Is Trump going to continue to be as vocal? Probably not,” said Chu, chalking up Trump’s tough China rhetoric to electioneering.
For years, he added, there had been bipartisan neglect on Hong Kong issues because of “a lack of real political organizing, and thus an over-reliance on individual politicians or a political party” to form a China policy. Hong Kong’s protests last year, and activists’ ongoing international diplomacy on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, have changed that.
Ultimately, Chu added, what determines whether China faces global pressure over its authoritarianism depends not only on who’s in the White House, but on whether “this pro-democracy, holding the CCP accountable agenda…[has] enough political clout and base.”