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Foreign Policy

Biden is the Better Bet

Aug 31, 2020

“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. ...I want to thank President Xi!”

--Tweet by Donald J Trump, January 24, 2020 

“Just In: Chinese State Media and Leaders of CHINA want Biden to win ‘the U.S. Election’. If this happened (which it won’t), China would own our Country, and our Record Setting Stock Markets would literally CRASH!”

--Tweet by Donald J Trump, August 26,2020 

The US Republican Party - despite a long history of doing business with the People’s Republic of China, dating back to Nixon’s breakthrough 1972 visit to Beijing to meet Mao - has in a matter of months, become the anti-China party, in word and deed. It employs racist  rhetoric (China virus, Kung Flu), has launched a destructive trade war (ruinous tariffs, sanctimonious sanctions), has ordered the closure of a consulate, and threatens kinetic war with military hubris. 

The Democratic Party, also a key contributor to US-China exchange since the days when Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping agreed to normalize relations, has also joined the anti-China bandwagon. While Biden is less vocal and less vociferous on the topic, he claims to be “tougher” on China than Trump. 

“I don’t suggest China is not a problem. I’m the guy who’s been the toughest on – I’ve spent more time with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping than anybody else, just because the nature of my job…he’s got problems, he’s got gigantic problems. Doesn’t mean he’s not a threat, doesn’t mean they’re not a threat."

--Joe Biden, May 2019 campaign rally 

Trump has mastered the art of the tweet, while Biden’s quote is taken from a live engagement. Biden’s sloppy trail of words make for less pithy commentary, but he has clearly pivoted to a combative position on China. Speaking up on human rights issues is par for the course, in keeping with his style, but most of his critiques tend to be oblique or fall within the conventions of diplomacy, reflecting the habits of his tenure as vice-president. While he claims to be “tough” on China, he leaves it up to aides, associates, and media people to bang the drum hard and loud against China. 

From Beijing’s point of view, which of the two self-described “tough-on-China” politicians is more worrisome? 

An argument could be made that Trump, despite his awful rhetoric, preening narcissism and tough-man pose, though prone to emotional outbursts, is a boon to China because he can be played. The flips and flops of his China commentary suggest shock and surprise, give and take. That the self-contradicting president might be an embarrassment to American diplomats and sober-thinking citizens is no concern of Beijing in Machiavellian terms if material advantage can be extracted from negotiating with such a man. 

Indeed, Trump’s mythologized “art of the deal” approach to politics was initially seized upon by diplomats in China (and also in Japan, Britain and elsewhere) as a kind of workable craziness. Let the man strut and pose and pout all day long, so long as underlying it all was a transactional dynamic. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You help me rake in the money, I help you too. 

The transactional aspect of Trump’s complex personality is clear to behold, but his inner pathology frequently takes destructive turns that undo the very deal-making he claims to be expert in.  While businessmen from  time immemorial have been willing to drop moral scruples and pay bribes as the cost of doing business, this only works if business is getting done. 

Trump, despite his reputation for wheeling and dealing with authoritarian leaders, is not taking care of business. He’s making a mess of things. 

A man who makes a mess of his own country may make for moments of schadenfreude abroad, is also a liability for foreign leaders. In the case of China, Trump held up the tantalizing, but amoral prospect of invigorating business links while flipping the finger at human rights, and he proved true to his word on human rights—he never shows any empathy for human suffering, but he deep-sixed business ties instead of fixing them. 

Trump seems to damage everything he touches. One need look no further than the long list of “friends” that Trump has fired to see that today’s indispensable right-hand man is tomorrow’s disposable rag. Michael Cohen and Steve Bannon, for example, just to name two Trump chumps now in the news.  Likewise, Trump’s ‘bromances’ with foreign male leaders are subject to whimsical delusion and the ephemeral mood of the moment.

Erstwhile allies have been humiliated and de-linked in a flash. 

Trump might feel a kinship with authoritarian father figures for psychological reasons of his own, but he is friends with no one, not Putin, not Kim, not Xi. 

While it is not breaking news to say that Trump is bad news, that is not to say that the prospect of a President Joe Biden is a boon to China. 

Biden has shown no willingness to buck the current irrational, national obsession of blaming China for US woes, even if his speech is more temperate than Trump’s. 

One might argue that the anti-China mania will pass and Joe Biden’s track record will reassure Beijing that he is open to reason. He has been engaged in national politics for longer than most of his counterparts and has seen these things ebb and flow. 

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that a  Biden administration will drop the anti-China grandstanding if they manage to win the election;  the Democratic party has proved itself perfectly capable of that kind of feint already. Clinton famously badmouthed the “butchers of Beijing” while running against Bush Sr, only to expedite Beijing’s entrance to WTO and embrace China as a major trade partner after coming into office. 

Joe Biden knows how the game is played and possesses diplomatic gravitas, despite a self-defeating propensity towards unsolicited touching, incoherent gaffes, and odd imprecations. 

Trump needs to lie, and seems to relish doubling down on his lies, whereas Biden uses white lies rather more selectively, as all politicians do. The former vice-president from Delaware is as close to a bona-fide old statesman as the centrist DNC can put on the ticket these days, yet he demonstrated as vice-president that he is capable of stepping to the side to let others shine. 

What does this say to America-watchers in Beijing who want to stabilize, if not improve, recently gutted relations with the US? 

Biden is the better bet.

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