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How America’s Midterm Elections Could Impact U.S.-China Relations

Jun 28, 2018
  • Dean P. Chen

    Associate Professor of Political Science, Ramapo College of New Jersey


In less than five months, the Donald J. Trump administration will be facing its first midterm elections on November 6, 2018, which would see all 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate contested. In addition, 39 state and territorial gubernatorial races and numerous other state and local elections will also be held. As a result of President Trump’s polarizing governance and the Democratic Party’s stunning and bitter losses in 2016, the key focus in 2018 will be whether the latter can ride on a “blue wave” to forcefully defeat the Republican majority in both houses of Congress.

Indeed, since 1946, the president’s party nearly always loses seats in midterm elections. To be sure, the more popular the president is (having approval ratings above 50%), the fewer seats his party will surrender. In 1998 and 2002, for example, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush saw their Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, gaining seats in the midterm, as both men enjoyed approval ratings well above 60%. Yet, those were the exceptions rather than the norm. When presidents’ popularity ratings slip below 50%, their parties tend to lose enormously: an average of 36 seats in the House of Representatives. During recent midterm elections in 2006, 2010 and 2014, the parties of Bush and Barack Obama, due to their declining favorability among the general public, lost heavily and even turned over the majority in both chambers of Congress to the opposition.

In light of this, the Democrats, capitalizing on anti-Trump sentiment, obviously have reasonable expectations of picking up more seats in November 2018. To recapture the House, the Democrats would need to hold on to their current 194 seats and win over at least 24 from the Republicans to claim a majority. The math seems to favor the Democrats at least for now: there are about 48 toss-up or competitive districts, and 41 of them are weakly dominated by the Republicans. At least 25 of these districts voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 or were won by Donald Trump by a razor-thin margin. Nevertheless, observers have cautioned against too much optimism. Although Trump’s drama-prone leadership, controversial policies and the legal investigations of his administration have contributed to his less-than-stellar polling numbers since taking office, the president has recently seen an improvement in his approval rating, from 37% in December 2017 to about 43% in June 2018. The number remains low, but Trump’s victory in 2016 suggested that it’s not impossible for an outspoken and theatrical president to defy predictions and upend longstanding conventions.

Emboldened by a robust U.S. economy, rising stock market, and the historic leadership summit between the United States and North Korea, the Republican Party may be able to withstand the Democrats’ attempted comeback by continuing to hold on to a much slimmer majority in the House. Whereas there are more than 30 Republican House members deciding to either retire or not to run for reelection, including the House Speaker Paul Ryan — a far greater number than in previous years — most of these seats are firmly ensconced in the Republican camp, thereby remaining invulnerable to a Democratic flip. As for the Senate race, the Democrats only need to net two more seats in order to take the majority. But, that would be an uphill battle given that 10 Democratic incumbents are fighting to hang on in states that Trump won, especially Missouri, Indiana, Florida, and North Dakota.

Though many centrist or independent voters are alienated by the Republican Party’s increasingly conservative, militant and populist outlooks, they are also unpersuaded by the Democratic Party, which has not been able to offer an updated, workable, and coherent policy agenda, let alone present strong leadership, to combat Trumpism.

Sino-American Relations

Nonetheless, regardless of the outcome of the 2018 elections, the Trump administration will persist in confronting China on security, economics, and technology.

Foreign policy has always been the sole prerogative of the executive branch. The Trump government is staffed with officials and advisors advocating for a stronger response to China. Even though Congress has the constitutional authority to constrain foreign policy decisions, it tends to ultimately defer to the president. Consequently, the Trump administration will remain the primary determinant of America’s foreign affairs.

Furthermore, the U.S. Congress has traditionally assumed a more hardline stance towards mainland China than the White House, which had been in favor of constructively engaging Beijing to deepen Sino-American cooperation. Recently, that discrepancy has become less apparent, as the Trump administration largely views engagement as ineffective in liberalizing China. Indeed, the Trump White House has stepped up efforts to push back against China on trade, moving forward with tariffs and other punitive economic measures meant to rectify “unfair trade” between the two countries and prevent “further unfair transfers of American technology and intellectual property to China.” The primary objective is to rein-in China’s ambitions to advance its high-tech industries in its “Made in China 2025” program. For its part, Beijing has retaliated by targeting tariffs at American cars, airplanes, machinery, whiskey, soybeans, and other agricultural exports. Since the Chinese duties could harm goods from U.S. farm states that are also core political bases for Trump and the Republican Party, this may complicate the midterm elections. However, the administration has appealed to the farmers’ “great patriotism” to endure any potential economic fallout and has affirmed that China has “much more to lose than we do.”

Notwithstanding their political antagonism, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have applauded the president’s decision, criticizing only when they felt that the administration didn’t go far enough to combat Beijing (such as when Trump decided to resuscitate ZTE). Although critics, particularly those supporting free trade, have voiced their qualms about Trump’s protectionism, which they believe could cause irreparable damage to American jobs and consumers, they do not dispute the administration’s harder line on China. Instead, they’ve urged the United States to enlist its allies and partners in a multilateral pressure campaign against Beijing.

As China emerges as a more assertive and influential player in world politics, the heightening competition between Beijing and Washington is an inevitable outgrowth of power shifts in the international geopolitical structure. The U.S executive branch and Congress, as well as the two major parties, enjoy a rare consensus in identifying China as a “revisionist power,” bent on shaping a “world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” and seeking to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

For short-term electoral gains, Trump and GOP candidates will likely to brandish their anti-China credentials to attract nationalist votes, while the Democrats will likely seek every opportunity to call the administration out for retreating from its pressure campaign against Beijing. Meanwhile, the U.S. will continue to push for greater interventions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to counter Chinese influence there. And then there’s the 2020 presidential election, and “bashing China” remains a political strategy for President Trump, his Democratic contender, and the House/Senate Republicans and Democrats who are defending their seats against potential challengers. However, since its national interests compel the US to pursue a more confrontational policy with China, any changes in America’s political or electoral landscape will not drastically change anything.

However, three variables are crucial in determining the effectiveness of Washington’s hawkish policy position. First, Chinese nationalism could easily be stirred up against American hostility. Given that the “Made in China 2025” program is essential for China’s national rejuvenation, it is highly unlikely that the Chinese will easily succumb to U.S. coercion. Second, the Trump administration’s diplomatic unilateralism and economic nationalism have also caused ruptures with its traditional allies and partners, including the EU, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. Thus, the U.S.’ entanglement in disputes with multiple players could undermine the coherence of America’s China policy. Finally, despite Trump’s cordial meeting with Kim Jong-un, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains a challenging issue. The extent to which the United States will need Beijing’s support and cooperation to address the North Korea problem will affect the intensity of Washington’s struggling campaign against China.

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