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Foreign Policy

Donald Trump: Saboteur

Dec 17, 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

After Donald Trump’s laughably futile election recount efforts, it is widely believed that he has entered the trash time of his tenure. Yet he remains uncompromising and obstinate, not only delaying the government transition of President-elect Joe Biden's but also repeatedly attempting to sabotage the shaky U.S relationship with China before the power shift. He’s making it harder to improve things.

The Trump administration is launching what can only be described as crazy attacks on China, seriously undermining the repair and stable development of relations. With the outgoing Republicans’ strong ideological biases and deep-rooted Cold War mentality, the U.S. government continues to flail at China. The latest wild punch is the imposition of entry restrictions on members of the Communist Party of China. In a hysterical display of virulence, the U.S. recently set an even worse precedent by imposing sanctions against 14 individuals — all vice chairs of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress.

Trump’s vicious political calculations are driving the China-bashing frenzy. First, U.S. officials are making China a punching bag to excuse their messiah’s electoral flop. 

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 this year was an important contributor to Trump’s defeat, but the best his team could do was to blame China for the poor U.S. response to the pandemic. They vented their anger in a flaccid attempt at retaliation. COVID-19 dealt a double blow to American lives and economy, which shattered a pillar of Trump’s “America first” strategy: domestic economic security. The number of voters expanded to record levels through mail-in ballots, netting Biden 7 million more votes than Trump. The Trump team, far from reflecting on its own mistakes in the fight against the coronavirus, continues to make China a scapegoat.

Anti-China and anti-Communist rhetoric is become common in the Trump administration. In the context of the pandemic, the United States seems to have no intention of cooperating on anything. Instead, it hopes to ease domestic pressure by shouting that China is the origin of COVID-19. It has intensified its attacks on the CPC and set off a new round of McCarthyism in the U.S. 

In May this year, the White House issued a paper — United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China — which clearly outlined the strategic goal of deterring China’s development. In June and July, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others successively spoke of China’s ideological, security and economic threats. They introduced a tougher China policy and centered the attacks on the CPC, all of which served as a guidebook for further attacks against China.

Recklessly attempting to shape the next U.S. administration’s China strategy, the Trump administration has abandoned any pretense of wanting to improve bilateral relations. It doesn’t want to leave room for Biden to adjust. In fact, Trump and his stooges are sabotaging bilateral relations with ever more intensity and extent to force Biden to stay on the current trajectory. For example, because of Trump’s stigmatization of the CPC in recent years, anti-Communist ideology has taken root within U.S. and has even come to be politically correct. To undo the anti-Communist policy immediately, Biden will face great resistance and likely pay a political price.

In the short term, the actions of the Trump administration will continue to have a major impact on China-U.S. relations, and will inevitably create many obstacles as Biden shapes China policy. On one hand, Biden will face enormous domestic political pressure. It will likely to be difficult for him to make major changes in short order.

Biden will likely face divided power in Congress once he takes office. Making routine appointments will be hampered if the Senate remains in Republican hands. In that case, Biden’s domestic agenda will also face obstacles. And with Trump fighting dirty on issues related to China, progress will be slow or impossible. The reversal of current policies will inevitably face resistance from Republicans and other anti-China factions, thus affecting the deeply concerning agendas such as fighting COVID-19 and facilitating economic recovery.

At the same time, Trump has been doing his best to tar Biden as weak toward China, and the new president will have to find a way to balance the Trump and Obama legacies. Trump’s latest round of pressure on China will not only make Biden more vulnerable to Trumpism and the China hawks but will also further push the new White House to distance itself from the so-called (and rather inaccurately named) “pro-China” stance of the Obama administration. Therefore, it is going to be tough for Biden to overturn the current China policy — at least in the early stages of his administration. Inaction and slow action may become a more realistic path for Biden in adjusting America’s China policy.

A more troubling possibility, given the relatively weak domestic economy, is that Biden may use part of Trump’s legacy as the basis of his own China policy, stitching together the approaches of Trump and Obama in return cooperation from Republican hardliners. From this perspective, Biden will continue to stand behind something like “America first,” emphasize the pursuit of a supposedly fair and reciprocal China-U.S. relationship and take strategic competition as the main approach of his China policy, thereby continuing to pressure China to make concessions. 

At the same time, Biden will remove the impetuous elements of Trump’s China policy, pursue calibrated and conditional cooperation and generally handle China-U.S. relations in a more rational and pragmatic manner to prevent a slide into outright confrontation and conflict.

All in all, Biden has a balanced understanding of China and seeks cooperation. Under the influence of Trump and domestic politics, Biden will find it difficult to quickly improve relations between the two countries, but he should strive to prevent the relationship from falling into strategic conflict. He should make a priority of strategic stability and establish a sustainable mechanism through positive action and guidance, summits, dialogues, crisis management and cooperation.

That said, both China and the U.S. must recognize that the window of opportunity will not remain open forever, and both sides should seriously consider how to seize the moment widen it further.

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