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Foreign Policy

The US Election and China Relations

Sep 16, 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

China has been front and center during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, with both the Republican and Democratic parties are competing to impose strong measures against China. The political climate raises serious concerns about the China-U.S. relationship.

Many observers believe the relationship, which is basically defined as strategic competition, has suffered significant negative impacts since Donald Trump took office as president. Some even argue that tensions have reached heights unseen since diplomatic ties were established. Narratives such as a new cold war, a Thucydides trap and McCarthyism are incessant.

But blaming Trump for the deterioration of China-U.S. relations is overly simplistic and may mask America’s long-simmering grievances and complaints against China. As early as 2014 and 2015, the U.S. strategic community had already begun a major debate on China policy.

First, China expert David Lampton’s speech about the relationship reaching a “tipping point” rippled through. And then the Council on Foreign Relations’ report — Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China — fostered new debate U.S. academic circles on China policy, mainly discussing whether the strategy of engagement with China had failed.

After Trump took office, harsh adjustments in U.S. China policy have gradually metastasized in mainstream opinion. Many scholars view this as a bipartisan consensus, but there are still many China hands who attach great importance to the positive role of engaging with China. They are sometimes derisively referred to as “panda-huggers” by people with ulterior motives, while anti-China hardliners are dubbed “dragon-slayers.” In such a poisonous political atmosphere, moderate and rational voices in the U.S. have gradually faded.

If Democrat Joe Biden wins the election, the muted voices of reason in the U.S. may be reactivated and China-U.S. relations may witness some subtle positive changes. Certainly, the overall U.S. China policy will not change, and the relationship will not return to the status enjoyed under the Obama administration. Competition will continue to be dominant, but the way competition plays out could be quite different from that under Trump’s rule.

In general, America’s China policy under a Biden administration will return to a more rational track that’s more likely to restart high-level strategic dialogues beyond the economic and trade sectors. For example, in the humanities, people-to-people and cultural exchanges with China will be restored to some extent, and practices such as closing consulates and denying visas to foreign students and journalists will be reduced.

In terms of global governance, such as jointly tackling climate change and COVID-19, and coordinating macroeconomic policies, the two sides may have cooperative room that was absent during the Trump administration. But China must be aware that Biden will be doing this because of the differences between Democratic and Republican diplomatic philosophies. The Democrats place more emphasis on multilateralism and global governance. The focus will not be stabilizing China-U.S. relations per se. In this case, although there will be an overlap of interests and more cooperative room for the two sides, competitive frictions in global governance will also emerge, unlike the scenario in which China was given more room to expand its influence under Trump’s doctrine of withdrawal.

The U.S. under a Biden administration will place more emphasis on cooperation with America’s allies. For example, on Europe policy the Democratic elites believe that it is not appropriate to push too hard for the sharing of NATO military expenses. Instead, the U.S. should cooperate with Europe pragmatically, jointly cope with the China challenge, reform global economic mechanisms and encourage Europe to share America’s responsibilities in the Middle East.

As for Asia-Pacific policy, Biden is likely to continue to upgrade the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy that began under Obama and counterbalance China’s development by increasing overall investment in the region’s military, diplomatic and economic sectors.

If Trump is re-elected, competition with China is likely to intensify. The trend will depend on three factors: how COVID-19 evolves, the economic situation in the U.S. and the change of personnel in the White House. If the U.S. finds itself unable to recover from COVID-19, or if the economy fails to improve much, continued pressure and smear tactics against China will become a Trump constant.

In fact, a central risk brought by Trump is that he has unleashed an anti-China backlash in White House policymaking circles. Trump himself is not entirely hostile to China, but the group of White House advisers on China is dominated by hawks. If Trump’s second-term staffing style remains similar, and if anti-China hawks continue to dominate U.S. policy, there will not be much room for maneuver in bilateral relations.

China should also think about how to tap the potential to cooperate with a possible Trump administration after the presidential election. One of the key areas for the U.S. to boost its economy after the pandemic involves upgrading its infrastructure, a task Trump had said he would push forward during his first term. It is reasonable that investing more in infrastructure will become a priority for Trump. What China could offer this project in terms of capital and technology might create an opportunity for the two countries to ease their tensions.

No matter who wins the election, the president’s decision-making role in China-U.S. relations should not be magnified too much. No matter who takes the wheel, as long as the overall strategic objectives of competition remain unchanged, issues such as economy and trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and Hong Kong will continue to be powerful tools for the U.S. to suppress China’s development. There should be no illusions about this in the next U.S. administration, and both countries should buckle up for possible turbulence.

On the other hand, after the passing of negative election campaign rhetoric, which has distorted bilateral relations, we should not be too pessimistic about the next administration’s China policy. Neither country should fall into self-fulfilling prophecy. The China hawks in the U.S. cannot completely overturn the foundation of China-U.S. relations that have flowered since the Nixon era. High-level exchanges, economic contacts and cultural communications will all be important components in stabilizing relations. 

But just as it takes two to tango, the U.S. must understand that cooperation cannot solely rely solely on China’s willingness to dance.

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