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Foreign Policy

Getting Through the Current Crisis

Oct 13, 2020
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The U.S. general election of 2020 is an election that caters to ordinary people. On the surface, it’s a referendum on whether to re-elect Donald Trump as the president, but in fact the election is a choice between nationalism and the U.S. continuing to be a globalist nation. Should Trump be re-elected, the United States will take the path of a nationalist power, provoking more confrontations, exacerbating cold wars and withdrawing further from the world community, which will have a far-reaching impact on U.S. global dominance in both hard and soft power.

In August, the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. held their national conventions. The Democratic Party platform highlights policies on the coronavirus, trade, taxes, immigration, climate change and education. Some parts reflect populist ideas, but policy statements regarding China have a muted tone, showing its unwillingness to follow Trump in playing the China card. (What we should be concerned about, however, is that there is no mention of the “one China policy.”)

Breaking from the past, the Republican National Convention didn’t release a detailed platform. Instead, it offered a concise list highlighting “Trump’s second-term agenda” — 50 goals covering areas including employment, epidemic response, healthcare, education, immigration and the labor force. According to U.S. media reports, the drafting of the list started in January as part of a platform reform that aims to make the agenda card-size. It’s clear that it was carefully prepared and not done in a rush.

Trump’s second-term agenda can be divided into three categories: economy, society and security, with the China factor permeating all topics and accounting for about 30 percent of the total. “End reliance on China” is the third priority. Headings incluce “Bring Back One Million Manufacturing Jobs from China,” “Tax Credits for Companies that Bring Back Jobs from China,” “No Federal Contracts for Companies who Outsource to China,” and “Hold China Fully Accountable for Allowing the Virus to Spread around the World.”

The second-term agenda delivers the dangerous signal that a new Trump administration would not stop cracking down on China and may take harsher immediate measures. It is similar to the “100-Day Action Plan” released on Trump’s first day after taking office in January 2017, a roadmap of his first 100 days as president. The two are similar in size, layout, style and tone, and 90 percent of the first plan has been implemented.

Thus, Trump’s implementation capability should not be underestimated. Although not much time is left in this term, Trump and his right-wing colleagues can still make use of the period before Inauguration Day (Jan. 20, 2021) to cross off the 50 priorities by issuing executive orders, moving U.S. governance to the right and expand the confrontation between China and the United States.

Given a variety of indicators, Trump is not likely to win the 2020 presidential election. He has a rather complicated mindset now: He wants to win the election at all costs, and has even suggested he would refuse to confirm the election result if he fails. On the other hand, because of his fascination with Mount Rushmore, he wants to achieve more so he’ll be remembered as a great president.

Over all, Trump is probably leveraging issues and making a policy sprint before the election. The Trump administration may, under the pretext of national security, launch “missiles with no targets” and take more actions that impair Chinese interests and dignity. It may, first of all, add more restrictions with the aim of pushing decoupling; second, degrade the two countries’ political relations; third, take dangerous steps that force China to take action on Taiwan and the South China Sea; fourth, intimidate or lure small neighboring countries to stay away from China; and fifth, seek more tangible benefits on the trade front by continuing to impose tariffs and set quotas.

Such actions are not emanating only from the White House. In the U.S. Congress, more than 300 bills involving China are in the queue, some of which are bipartisan. The strong compliance of Congress with the White House is a significant part of the U.S. “toolkit” that’s being used against China.

Should China-U.S. relations deteriorate far enough by February, the room for policy adjustments after the new administration takes office will be significantly narrowed, and future American policy toward China will be anchored in cutthroat competition and confrontation. China must skillfully cope with the pressing challenges at hand to uphold its national sovereignty, security and development interests, while staying committed to its own strategic goals and avoiding being manipulated by the Trump administration. Only by getting through the current crisis will China be able to mitigate long-term risks.

One of the priorities for the U.S. government after the election will be to deal with the extremely strained relations with China. If Biden is elected, even if he wants to ease tensions and allow room for adjustment and coordination, and even if he wants a policy that allows “the coexistence of competition and cooperation,” as he has stated, he will have to first deleverage the excesses that have been added to the confrontation between the two nations imposed by the Trump administration over the last three years.

Constrained by the political environment and interests at home, a Biden administration would be unable to unconditionally repeal many tough measures against China that were imposed by the Trump administration. Therefore, the main agenda of China-U.S. relations in the first year of a Biden presidency could easily turn into a contentious round of bargaining.

For example, in economy and trade, although Biden mentioned during the campaign that he would remove the tariffs and reject using a trade war as a solution to the China-U.S. trade disputes, he didn’t elaborate on the specific measures he would take. If he meant renegotiation on the basis of current tariffs, the two countries will again first focus on trade, which is the exact starting point of the current China-U.S. overall confrontation.

The U.S. military strategy is cross-governmental and continuous. Its overall trend is a global contraction so that it can redirect its main power against China’s military growth. This is true regardless of any change of administrations. Specifically, the U.S. will first aim at those areas where it believes its military power will be overtaken by China — hypersonic weapons, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, electromagnetic rail guns, directed-energy weapons, and anti-satellite weapons — so it can step up its own arms renewal and exert pressure on China in a local arms race.

Second, the U.S. will take the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait as the main competitive platforms for containing what it believes is China’s strategic expansion.

Third, the U.S. will bring China into arms control talks with Russia. Since the U.S. has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and it’s unlikely that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will be renewed after its 10-year term expires in February, the U.S. is planning to negotiate a new and broader disarmament treaty and insists that China must be involved.

As strategic competitions intensify, the risks of a head-on collision between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait continue to rise, and nuclear arms control and intermediate-range nuclear forces will have an increasing impact on overall relations. What confronts the new administration in military-to-military relations are questions of how to strengthen risk management and control between the two countries and whether and how to conduct strategic stability consultation.

The U.S. has reached a general consensus at home regarding China. Be it under Trump or Biden, the new administration will take tougher measures against China. Strategic competition and gaming will dominate China-U.S. relations in the future. However, this doesn’t mean there is no room for dialogue and cooperation, nor does it mean that bilateral relations are not manageable.

If Democrats take office, a favorable change for stabilizing China-U.S. relations is that the U.S. will return to its embrace of globalism, which was abandoned by Trump, and restore its participation and leadership in multilateral international mechanisms in the fields of climate change and clean energy. China and the U.S. will likely restore normal exchanges in the humanities field and at the local and state levels.

In this event, China should seize the opportunity to resume dialogues, consultation mechanisms and functional cooperation as much as possible to enhance the resilience of the relationship.

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