Chinese leaders hope Washington will tone down conflicts over trade, technology and security if Joe Biden wins the November 3 presidential election. But any shift is likely to be in style, not substance, as frustration with Beijing increases across the American political spectrum.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and their constituents seem disinclined to adopt a softer approach toward China, possibly presaging more strife ahead, regardless of the election’s outcome.
US-Chinese relations have plunged to their lowest level in decades amid an array of conflicts over the coronavirus pandemic, technology, trade, security and spying.
Despite discord on so many other fronts, both parties are critical of Beijing’s trade record and stance toward Hong Kong, Taiwan and religious and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the ruling Communist Party has detained Muslims in political so-called re-education camps.
The American public is equally negative. Two-thirds of people surveyed in March by the Pew Research Center had “unfavourable views” of China, the highest since Pew started asking in 2005.
Biden “would be savaged” if he tried to downplay complaints against Beijing, said Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
Chinese leaders have been quieter about this election than during the 2016 presidential race, when they favoured Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They despised Clinton for carrying out then-President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which included pressuring Beijing on human rights. Trump’s public image of business success resonated with the Chinese public.
But a Biden presidency might restore a more predictable relationship after the shocks of Trump’s tariff war and his outreach to India, seen as a strategic rival, and Southeast Asian countries, with which Beijing has a series of territorial disputes, Chinese analysts say.
At the least, Biden’s policy ”won’t be as emotional and ridiculous as Trump’s”, said Yu Wanli, a professor of international relations at Beijing Language and Culture University.
“Democrats appear less militant, so they may take more care to prevent even limited military conflicts and pay more attention to crisis management communication with China,” said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing, one of the country’s most prominent scholars of international relations.
Biden, Obama’s vice president in 2009-2017, leads in polls but Trump could win if he attracts enough voters in key states including Florida. Trump pulled off a similar upset in 2016 when he lost the popular ballot but won in enough states to secure the 270 votes required in the Electoral College that decides the election.
US intelligence officials believe Chinese leaders don’t want Trump re-elected, according to a statement by William Evanina, the top counterintelligence official. It didn’t directly accuse China of trying to interfere in the election or to support Biden.
Trump shook up China’s leaders by hiking tariffs on Chinese exports in 2018 over complaints Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technology. The White House has lobbied allies to exclude Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, from next-generation telecom networks on security grounds. Huawei’s access to American components and technology was cut off, threatening to cripple its global sales.
Trump is trying to bar Chinese social media companies from the United States, citing fears they might gather too much personal information about Americans. The White House is pressing video service TikTok to sell its US operation and is trying to block companies from dealing with WeChat, the popular Chinese message service.
US companies and trading partners have criticised Trump’s tariff war, which prompted Chinese retaliation that hurt American farmers and factory workers. But complaints that China steals technology and violates its market-opening commitments are widely shared. Beijing tried to recruit France, Germany, South Korea and other governments as allies against Washington but all refused.
Tariff hikes on Chinese goods “would probably be removed only gradually under Biden”, said Michael Hirson of Eurasia Group, a research firm, in a report.
Trump’s tariffs were imposed to encourage manufacturers to shift jobs back to the United States, a cause long championed by Democrats.
Other governments uneasy over China’s strategic ambitions also are putting curbs on its tech companies on security grounds.
This week, Swedish regulators banned phone carriers from using equipment from Huawei and its smaller Chinese rival ZTE to build high-speed wireless networks after a security official called China one of the country’s biggest threats.
In their debates, the presidential and vice presidential candidates have accused each other of being ineffective or not tough enough on China. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence accused Biden of giving China a free ride as Obama’s vice president. Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, labeled Trump’s trade war a failure.
Biden would try to resume cooperation with Beijing on climate change, North Korea, Iran and the coronavirus, Hirson wrote. But he said Biden would face “widespread US consensus that the pre-Trump approach of engaging China either failed or is no longer suitable”.
What is more likely is a “more contentious ‘gloves off’ relationship” in which the two sides struggle to avoid a crisis over Taiwan or the South China Sea, he said.
Unease about Beijing’s military and strategic ambitions is widespread among American allies and in Washington. US military officials say Beijing is an increasingly serious threat. That sentiment is unlikely to change under a new administration.
”Biden is a problem for China because his administration would likely stick China on human rights, and his declared approach of working with allies to constrain China could happen and would complicate China’s advance,” said Robert Sutter, a China politics expert at George Washington University.
Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says Biden might reassert US global leadership in ways that would pressure China to deliver on all of its rhetoric on issues like climate change and global health.
In 2016, Trump mixed attacks on China’s trade record with praise for President Xi Jinping, who faces no term limits as ruling party leader, head of the military and president. That raised hopes in Beijing that Trump might be open to making deals.
Some in the Chinese public still favour Trump because they believe he is facilitating China’s rise to global leadership by having “led the US down the wrong road”, said Yu of the Beijing Language and Culture University.
Trump’s disinterest in human rights, criticism of Nato allies and disengagement from the World Trade Organisation and World Health Organisation are seen as a surrender of US leadership.
Meanwhile, Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his stoking of American tensions over class and race were ”simply gifts” to Xi’s government, Economy said.
US problems allow Xi to portray China’s one-party system as better than disorderly Western democracy. The entirely state-controlled media ignore or dismiss complaints about repression of minority groups and other issues.
But still, Chinese nationalists believe Trump is trying to block China’s rise to its rightful status as a global leader. And Beijing is frustrated by Trump’s abrupt policy changes.
“A second Trump administration may be utterly ineffective, but it’s also likely to be unstable, and the Communist Party values stability very highly,” said Scissors.
Chinese leaders may see Biden as more pliable even if the issues don’t change, said June Teufel Dreyer, a Chinese politics specialist at the University of Miami.
“Reversing the old cliché, they’d prefer the devil they don’t know to the devil they do know,” Dreyer said.