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Foreign Policy

U.S. Election Rhetoric Destabilizes Relations

May 16, 2024
  • Bian Qingzu

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

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It’s a presidential election year in the United States, and both U.S. President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, swept primary contests in March, clinching their parties’ nominations. This year marks the first presidential rematch since 1956, and also the first encounter in 132 years between a former president and a rival who defeated him previously. In recent election years, the U.S. has hyped up its “China threat” rhetoric, hitting a raw nerve in bilateral relations. The uncertainty is likely to pose risks to China-U.S. ties.

Developments in the ongoing election campaign are complex and fluid. Currently, Biden and Trump are close in favorability with the American people, with Trump maintaining a small lead in some key states but generally within surveys’ margins of error. This means a very tight race and a close vote count in November.

Apart from vice presidential candidates and the governing ideas of the two major political parties, other factors are also impacting the decision of American voters. Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appears to have less than 15 percent support. But while he is unlikely to win, he can still affect the outcome of the election depending on whether he draws more votes away from Biden or Trump. The outcome will also be decided by close votes in six or seven “swing states” — perhaps only a few hundred ballots. Also, the number of “double haters,” people who detest both Republicans and Democrats, has surged to 19 percent this year, from only four percent in 2020. Their votes will be decisive.

For a long time, it has been domestic issues that determined the outcomes of elections. Nonetheless, the international landscape has now become another uncertainty. For instance, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may hurt Biden’s approval ratings among young voters. The pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. campuses have posed a challenge.

But almost certainly, the U.S. election campaign will have a negative impact on China-U.S. ties. Although it’s still early, China is already heavily referenced. There are signs that the China issue is bound up with American politics, the economy and public opinion. Washington is suffused with an atmosphere of China-U.S. geopolitical contention. As described in a Bloomberg article, Beijing has already become “a top target in the U.S. election campaign.”

Republicans and even some Democrats seem obsessed with hyping an alleged “China threat.” They use it to draw attention by claiming that “China is stealing American jobs.” Taking a tough stance against China has become a matter of political correctness across America. In particular, criticism of China by the presidential candidates has negatively affected bilateral relations. Distorting the image of China and shaping a hawkish China policy has undermined goodwill. According to a Pew survey released in early May, 81 percent of U.S. adults see China unfavorably, including 43 percent who hold a very unfavorable opinion. 

Unfriendly Congress 

The highly polarized and ideologically driven U.S. Congress, which has long been unfriendly with China, is a stronghold of the country’s anti-China forces. All 435 House seats and 33 Senate seats are up for grabs in November, so it’s likely that more anti-China measures will be introduced.

In seeking re-election, Biden has stepped up efforts to rein in China instead of steering in a more positive direction. Washington’s increasingly frequent actions to contain Beijing have caused more frictions and disagreements. Despite five agreements reached during U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China in April, bilateral ties remain confronted with multiple tests in security, economy, trade and other areas. The buzz of the coming election is accelerating the use of the “China card,” with more negative impacts emerging.

Technology and trade are the core battlefield of China-U.S. strategic competition. The U.S. has launched myriad policy measures to crack down on China, extending its list of Chinese companies under sanctions. On May 1, another 22 Chinese companies were added to the blacklist. The U.S. has enforced restrictions on China’s high-tech corporations, in particular in the semiconductor sector.

Seeking votes in swing states, Biden criticized China for being “unfair” and called for tripling tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum to 22.5 percent. In April, the U.S. trade representative initiated a U.S. Code Section 301 investigation into China’s practices in the maritime, logistics and shipbuilding sectors — the first move of its kind in the Biden administration.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen blasted China’s “overcapacity” and expressed concerns on many occasions, threatening that “all options are open” for retaliation. With respect to a so-called concern about “assisting Russia,” the White House urged Beijing to stop supporting Moscow and encouraged its allies to pressure China. Blinken and other high-level officials raised concerns about China sending dual-use items (those with both military and civilian application) to Russia, saying, “If China does not address this problem, we will.” According to a report by The Washington Post, the U.S. has considered imposing sanctions against Chinese businesses involved in trade with Russia. 

Bracing for Trump comeback 

What the Biden administration has in common with Trump when it comes to China is the view that China is America’s No.1 strategic competitor and so it must suppress and contain China to prevent its rise. An article in the Financial Times called the Biden approach to China “polite Trumpism.” However, the two men do have differences. Some study and analysis of those differences would be useful in dealing with the U.S. in the future.

If Biden is re-elected, he can be expected to continue with the China policy of restrained engagement to defeat China through competition without major conflicts. Further, a more systematic framework on strategic competition with China will take shape.  The China policy of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party is more or less stable and predictable; hence, existing dialogue mechanisms will probably continue and expand. Moreover, Democrats need to cooperate with China in addressing global challenges. In April, the Biden administration reiterated its "four nos and one no-intention” with China. But it’s important to recognize the two faces of Washington: While claiming to stabilize bilateral ties, it puts more pressure on Beijing.

Trump and extreme Republicans emphasize “America first” and display strong hostility toward China. During his campaign, Trump talked about putting stringent sanctions on China and confirmed that he would impose tariffs of “60 percent or higher” on Chinese goods and cancel Most Favored Nation status for Chinese imports. If Trump wins in November, his Republican government will likely continue its super tough China policy and may even seek total decoupling from the Chinese economy in a sudden surprise. Under Trump, Beijing and Washington would likely enter a period of more intense strategic competition. Some even say that bilateral ties will dive into an abyss. A recent article by a Chinese think tank predicting Trump’s China policy and the state of relations after he takes office suggests that Washington may reshape the development of bilateral ties, with potential policies prioritizing threats in Asia over defending Europe and a complete decoupling.

We do have eight years of experience now in dealing with these two administrations, so we hold no illusions. Focusing on ourselves and seeking independent development should be the major policy response. 

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