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Foreign Policy

How U.S. Electoral System Affects Relations

Jan 29, 2024
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

US election.jpg

On Jan. 15, the primary election campaign for the White House, which will be decided in the November general election, kicked off with caucuses in the state of Iowa. The election process in the United States is full of variables, but its implications for China-U.S. relations may be more prominent. Given the escalating political polarization within the country and the evolving bilateral dynamics in the past few years, the election will add an element of uncertainty even as relations show signs of a thaw.

In a political ecosystem marked by fierce rivalry between two major political parties, spiced by rampant populism, the China issue is more likely to become a major topic to be manipulated by politicians of all stripes. For voters, economic issues such as inflation and employment, and social issues such as abortion and gun control, remain major issues of concern. However, an examination of past elections reveals a growing pattern among politicians in which the China issue is intertwined with the pressing concerns of voters. For example, they often push the claim that China has taken away jobs from U.S workers and that Chinese companies have fueled the serious problem of fentanyl addiction in the United States.

In this election, misinformation propagated by artificial intelligence and its interference in the electoral process seems to be new — manufactured to cause enormous excitement and hype. As both parties hold unfavorable views toward China, making a big show of toughness has become politically correct.

The 2024 election coincides with the progress of China-U.S. relations to a more stable stage, and the factors mentioned above threaten to make a structural impact. In fact, there is a growing consensus of opinion on their impact among those interested in Washington’s China policy. In its report titled Top Risks For 2024, for example, the Eurasia Group says that the biggest global risk will be “the United States vs. itself. Consequently, President Joe Biden may find it politically more difficult to maintain the thaw in bilateral relations.

In the foreseeable future, both the complexity of China-U.S. relations and the polarization of U.S. domestic politics can expected to persist and influence each other in a number of ways. In the context of the presidential election, the U.S. political ecosystem has the potential to send shockwaves through China-U.S. relations in three specific ways: 

• Radical measures from Congress. Congress has evolved to become a significant factor affecting bilateral relations, as evidenced by its many anti-China legislative efforts and proposals that have poisoned the atmosphere in the past few years. There’s a high probability that, driven by the election, anti-China elements may push Congress to introduce radical bills on various issues, especially those involving China’s core interests. For example, the new China Competition 2.0 bill may become a tool for a few politicians to win over relevant interest groups and reap political gains for themselves. On the other hand, the Biden administration may find itself impelled to restrain radical measures emerging from Congress.

• Dangerous executive departments. Despite the recent resumption of bilateral contacts between government bodies, the White House’s political control over domestic executive departments and inter-department policy coordination is expected to be weakened during the election year. If front-line personnel in law enforcement agencies and the military engage in dangerous behaviors, such as arresting Chinese people or winking at frictions at sea and in the air, it could give rise to new challenges in crisis management for the two countries.

• Negative acts of state and local governments. By comparison with political polarization at the national level, the local political ecosystem is more complex and conservative. In the past few years, aggressive anti-China rhetoric from certain politicians has left a mark at the state and local levels, contributing to negative perceptions of China among ordinary citizens. Ultra-conservative states, such as Florida, have even introduced a series of anti-China policies. In this context, politicians vying for support at the state and local levels are bound to play the China card unscrupulously, which may set off a chain reaction of imitation.

In addition, in the coming political season, disappointment by Americans over the shortcomings of their own system may spill over into relations with China.

In the United States, both political parties have begun to view relations with China from the perspective of competition at the system level. The Washington Consensus proposed in 2023 by Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Biden, is a clear example of reflecting on the shortcomings of the U.S. system. The 2021 Capitol riot not only triggered deep reflection on domestic politics but also cast a lingering shadow on the ongoing election process. 

Donald Trump, ensnared in lawsuits, still enjoys broad support within his party. Since the beginning of the election cycle, legal disputes surrounding his eligibility for the ballot have created confusion in public opinion and even a potential constitutional crisis. These events offer deep insight into the anxiety prevalent in U.S. society about problems in the U.S. system. 

In the context of strategic competition with China, potential disputes in this election cycle, as well as subsequent doubts about the U.S. approach to government, may lead to further fear of the Chinese system and amplify and distort perceptions of the so-called China threat.

Since the dysfunction of the U.S. political system is difficult to resolve in the short term, the two parties will persistently pursue a strategy of competition with China. Therefore, the long-term coexistence of these two factors may well become another aspect of a new normal in bilateral relations and produce profound consequences in the future.



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