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Foreign Policy

Shifting U.S. Politics: What it Means for China

Dec 26, 2020
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


Four years ago, real estate developer and self-described political outsider Donald Trump raised the anti-establishment banner and unleashed a populist political storm in the United States. He overturned power in Washington and changed the foreign policy of the country.

A little more than a month ago, the political situation flipped again, as the anti-Trump faction represented by Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential election. Trump’s rejection of the election results and his efforts to create obstacles to Biden’s success have prompted the president-elect to make preparations for the White House on his own and without the usual federal transition assistance until recently. So far, Biden has announced the new administration’s key diplomatic and national security personnel, and by the look of it, the establishment of the past is set to return.

It should be noted, however, that a change of president does not automatically signal the beginning of a dramatic new chapter in U.S. politics or foreign policy. The great changes brought by Trump’s four years in power are not just a personal legacy but an unfinished historical process of political change in the U.S. Trump will have a significant impact on Biden’s four-year term.

The U.S. political upheaval is essentially a profound political crisis. Long-standing economic and social conflicts have intensified, and the polarization of bipartisan politics has grown to an almost unparalleled level — both between and within the Democratic and Republican parties. The long-held political orthodoxy of both parties has been discredited, the liberal consensus on governance among major interest groups has been shattered and the checks and balances mechanism of bipartisan politics has become a veto mechanism.

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has labeled all this as “the decay of democracy.” And the sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic magnifies these problems and the inherent flaws of the American political and economic systems in unexpected ways. The United States has been plunged into a political, economic and social crisis of unprecedented proportions, at least as great as the crises of the 1930s and 1960s.

So-called Trumpism is a combination of Trump's personal ambitions and populist political movements as represented by Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, operating in a political alliance with the religious right and the far right wing of the Republican Party.

The vast majority of Trump’s grassroots support comes from the racially white, blue-collar middle class and lower working class — people who have been increasingly marginalized in the process of globalization over the past 20 years or so. They are typified by Trump's fans in the Rust Belt states (where it’s worth noting that a majority of voters turned to Biden).

The outsourcing of traditional American manufacturing, the dramatic growth of economic financialization, information technology, the internet, high-tech industries (including artificial intelligence), the new division of brain work and manual labor, the widening wealth gap and the precariousness of jobs have rendered this major group, long the poster child for the American Dream, increasingly irrelevant and even socially stigmatized.

Despite the election's outcome, they remain a huge group of voters who, after a long period of disappointment and frustration, have raised Trump to messianic proportions while turning to anti-globalization and becoming anti-Wall Street and anti-Washington establishment. They are now agitators contemptuous of political correctness, and a simple-minded, impetuous leader has become their strongest advocate.

From the inside out, "America first” rhetoric is designed to relieve their pain points. As the hallmark of Trump's foreign policy, this so-called first principle is a mixture of populism, protectionism and isolationism. It’s essentially an externalization or outreach of political changes within the United States.

 The fact that strategic competition has become the dominant topic in China-U.S. relations in the new era is the result of three developments. First, the rise of China is rapidly changing the balance of power and and thus the relationship between the two countries. Second, the development of multipolarity is changing the international landscape. Third, the political changes in the United States are leading to advocacy and outreach by needy parties.

In the late Obama administration, based mainly on the first two changes and the new dominant approach, strategic competition has become the consensus in Washington’s strategic and diplomatic circles for policy adjustments involving China. The policy development of the Trump administration has added another factor, the prominence of outreach forces generated by political changes.

Ideological factors have thus became a new marker in U.S. policy toward China, a change that became even more unbridled after several key members of the establishment were kicked out, giving greater momentum to decoupling. The Trump administration’s failure to respond aggressively to the pandemic and the increased political tension and hostility between China and the United States caused by the attempt to frame China as the bad guy has only exacerbated the deterioration of relations.

In summary, a new relationship between China and the United States has taken shape. One substantial change is the emergence of strategic competition as the dominant facet of the relationship.

Two points need to be made clear in this regard. First, the U.S. has made China its main rival and adjusted its strategic orientation toward China accordingly — a reality that China must face. Second, it is difficult for China to change the reality of strategic competition at the moment (and for some time to come) in accordance with its own wishes. The United States still has a significant advantage. However, there is room for both Chinese and U.S. policymakers to play a role in deciding the way in which strategic competition is conducted. What strategic competition actually means is determined by the interactions between the two sides, and it’s primarily expressed in the handling of a number of important issues.

Finally, there remains the question of the incoming Biden administration’s policy direction. The China policy of the U.S. will be adjusted, but the basic approach to strategic competition with China — which reflects the mainstream views of both American political parties — is not likely to change from the Trump era. What will change is the manner in which that policy is carried out, and here there is uncertainty. The new direction will depend on how U.S. politics evolves.

The Biden administration’s biggest challenge is to make tangible progress on several fronts — containing the pandemic, nursing the economy back to health, healing the divisions in the Democratic Party and easing the deep partisan rivalry in the country so that the Democratic momentum can continue. How the Biden administration handles the important issue of relations with China will be crucial.

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