Given how much U.S.-China relations have deteriorated in recent months, it is hard to imagine that they could get any worse. Unfortunately, the odds of an even faster free fall in the world’s most critical bilateral relationship are not only worryingly high, but also are likely to increase in the months ahead as the U.S. general elections enter its final and more unpredictable phase.
Two different sets of political dynamics and calculations will determine the extent and pace of further deteriorations in Sino-American ties. First, the imperatives of electoral politics before November 3 will incentivize the Trump administration to adopt policies to improve President Donald Trump’s chances of re-election. Second, the outcome of the elections on November 3 will decide whether tensions will escalate even faster and more dangerously.
Because of China’s highly negative image among the American public, anti-China rhetoric and punitive policies are sure ways of gaining support for an incumbent like Trump caught up in a tough re-election campaign. With the economy in recession and high unemployment and the coronavirus pandemic raging around the country, Trump understandably wants to divert voters’ attention elsewhere. Besides attacking his Democratic opponent, former vice president Joseph Biden, one obvious tactic of political distraction is to get even tougher on China, a country Trump blames for spreading the virus and hurting him politically.
While theoretically simple, picking the right fight with China in the next two months is not going to be easy. Waging another round of diplomatic offensives, such as closing one more Chinese consulate in the U.S. or sanctioning Chinese elites and entities, will unlikely move the needle of public opinion in Trump’s favor largely because these measures don’t attract the attention of the average American voter. Resorting to overtly eye-catching economic moves, such as drastic financial sanctions against Chinese banks or scrapping the Phase I trade agreement, will roil financial markets and add to economic gloom. This will hurt, not help, Trump’s re-election since one of his few perceived strengths is the economy.
The only development that might help him politically would be a military incident involving China. This could be in the form of an accidental collision of warplanes or confrontation between naval vessels of the two countries in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait. Although such a scenario is dangerous and is certain to change election dynamics should it occur in October, many factors limit its probability. For starters, Trump cannot directly order U.S. warships or planes to engage in extremely provocative behavior. He must go through the proper channel of command and force a substantial change in the Pentagon’s rules of engagement for its operations in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. There is no doubt that the Pentagon will strenuously resist undertaking any steps that could quickly escalate into a military crisis with China simply for the benefit of Trump’s re-election. Additionally, if Beijing orders its military to refrain from responding to U.S. air and naval activities aggressively, the odds of a military incident will be low.
This analysis implies that although U.S.-China relations will continue to deteriorate between now and November 3, the odds of a direct military confrontation or a dramatic act of economic decoupling are still relatively low. Nevertheless, the unstable status quo, marked by mutual hostility and constant symbolic sanctions, will persist.
The direction and pace of change in U.S.-China ties after November 3 will obviously depend on the outcome of the presidential election.
If Trump should get re-elected, ironically there will likely be a calmer period in Washington’s relations with Beijing in the immediate term. Trump and his chief advisors will likely take a pause and figure out a more comprehensive China strategy for the next four years at a more deliberate pace. While the overall direction of this strategy will be confrontational and bilateral tensions will worsen in the next four years, the world can enjoy at least a short respite.
In the event of a Trump loss, the world should brace for a totally different scenario. With only two and half months left on the clock, the Trump administration will have all the incentives to complete its unfinished business on China. Trump will undoubtedly blame China for his loss and therefore give his China hawks carte blanche. In the worst case, we could see Washington take steps previously deemed unthinkable. The most obvious target would be the Phase I trade deal. Because China is unlikely to meet the purchase target set in the deal ($200 billion of additional American exports to China in 2020 and 2021), Trump will have an easy excuse to scrap the deal and escalate the trade war. He can also extend the ban on the sale of technology products to more Chinese firms, even the largest state-owned enterprises. Financial decoupling could accelerate with sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong banks. To hit Beijing where it psychologically hurts the most, Washington may further gut its “One-China” policy by elevating Taiwan’s diplomatic status in the U.S. or even openly permitting U.S. military vessels or aircraft to make calls in Taiwanese ports and airfields.
All these measures will put Sino-American relations to the most severe test since diplomatic relations were normalized in 1979. Obviously, they will bind the hands of a Biden administration. If Biden is elected, any attempts to repair ties with China will incur prohibitive costs, as he must first lift these sanctions and undo the damage in a political environment where most members of his own party and the American public support a hawkish policy toward China.
The only silver lining one can see is that, should Biden win, his near-term top priority is not to further escalate the confrontation with China, but to heal America after four years of Trump. On the top on his agenda is the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery, nurturing ties with allies, and racial tensions. So even while the legacy of Trump’s China policy will endure for some considerable length of time, we may expect a temporary lull in Sino-American tensions before both Beijing and Washington figure out where they want to take the relationship in the next four years.