As the presidential elections draw near, security authorities in the United States remain on alert for signs of interference from foreign actors. Russia is clearly rooting for Trump, reports state, and may try to undermine Biden. China, on the other hand, reportedly would prefer a Biden victory and a return to the status quo, which they believe would bring relief from the barrage of daily tweets and lapses in diplomatic propriety, not to mention the tariffs and sanctions Trump has imposed.
“China and Iran are trying to stop President Trump’s re-election,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtagh stated in April, “because he has held them accountable after years of coddling by politicians like Joe Biden.”
Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, reports that Beijing finds Trump “unpredictable” and prefers that he “does not win reelection.” Trump himself wrote in a tweet that the Chinese “are desperate to have Sleepy Joe Biden win the presidential race so they can continue to rip-off the United States, as they have done for decades, until I came along.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping allegedly told Henry Kissinger last year that he would prefer Trump over the Democrats, who “will go on about human rights and other things,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC.
Therefore, closer scrutiny indicates the situation may be more complex.
Ned Price, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Council spokesman under Obama, tweeted contradictory reports earlier this month suggesting that Trump had asked Xi to help him win the election. “Trump has repeatedly conspired with Xi to interfere in the upcoming election,” National Security Action reports, specifically in an attempt to “help him win reelection by increasing Beijing’s agricultural purchases for American farmers.”
Volatile as he may seem, there is much about Trump that appeals to Beijing. His tweets not only make him “easy to read,” as Chinese trade negotiator Long Yongtu reveals, but also indicate there is more bark in him than bite.
According to Long, “Trump is a transparent and realistic negotiator who is concerned only with material interests such as forcing China to import more American products, on which Beijing is able to compromise.” He “can be persuaded if the price is right,” Claremont McKenna professor Minxin Pei told The Atlantic. “If the Democrats succeed, China would be in a much more difficult situation in the long run.”
Trump has been useful to China, difficult to work with or otherwise. Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state-run Global Times, responded to Trump’s tweets that accuse Beijing of spreading misinformation to undermine Trump’s campaign by addressing the president directly.
“On the contrary, Chinese netizens wish for your re-election because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world. You help promote unity in China and you also make intl news as fun as comedy. Chinese netizens call you ‘Jianguo,’ meaning ‘help to construct China.’”
What would a Biden administration mean for Beijing? A return to traditional, largely Western policy and ideology, resulting in new alliances with Western nations, crackdowns on unfair Chinese market practices and an uncompromising stance on human rights issues, including the internment camps in Xinjiang. China’s recent incursions at its border with India, its flouting of international maritime rulings involving the South China Sea, its fundamental undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy — all of the things Trump overlooks, Beijing understands, Biden will not.
Nor will his running mate, China believes. Hours after her nomination, China’s Global Times wrote that Kamala Harris “is expected to add points to Biden’s campaign,” noting that her “harsh stance on China will likely escalate the who-is-toughest-on-China competition between the ‘donkey and elephant’ in the 2020 U.S. presidential race.”
Trump, on the other hand, if elected, will continue to forgo human rights in exchange for economic return. He said in July that he believed Xi has acted “very responsibly” with regard to the protests in Hong Kong and, although pressured in June to sign into law a bill that would sanction Chinese officials responsible for mass incarceration of the Uighurs, the problem didn’t seem to matter before.
John Bolton wrote of a meeting with Xi last year in Japan that “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” Bolton, according to The New York Times, “portrays a president pleading with Mr. Xi for political help, particularly through a truce in the trade war that would increase Chinese purchases of American products.”
During his first days in office, Trump ended US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, creating the first of a number of openings for China to access markets formerly occupied by the US. He ended US funding for the World Health Organization, was conspicuously absent from the WHO assembly this year and recently announced that the US would not be joining the WHO-linked effort (involving more than 170 countries) to develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine – “a decision,” The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests, “that could shape the course of the pandemic and the country’s role in health diplomacy.”
China has been more than willing to step in as the new global cooperative power, pledging two billion dollars over two years to help impacted countries respond to the pandemic. As soon as a vaccine is available, President Xi has vowed, it “will be made a global public good.”
Another Trump term will continue to divide the coalition of nations required to meet dangers to the international order and strengthen China’s position among them. As Bloomberg observes, drawing from interviews with nine current and former Chinese officials, “the benefit of the erosion of America’s postwar alliance network would outweigh any damage to China from continued trade disputes and geopolitical instability.” “[A] Democratic administration might prove more formidable if it worked with allies to present a united front,” according to Chinese officials.
“Four more years might present tantalizing opportunities for Beijing to expand its influence around East Asia and the world,” Michael Schuman writes in The Atlantic. By stirring the flames of domestic partisan fires and by stepping out of long-standing alliance agreements, the president has created an opening. According to Chinese analyst Yan Xuetong, Trump has offered Beijing its “greatest strategic opportunity since the end of the Cold War.”
If one thing is certain, it’s that November’s elections are poised to carry significant weight. Comparisons have already been made to the 1860 elections, which immediately preceded the Civil War.
“[I]f Trump is re-elected,” Hal Brands writes in Bloomberg, “then the conclusion must be America has made a strategic choice — not to relinquish the privileges that come with great power, but to relinquish the responsibility for competent leadership.”
This may be temporarily unpleasant for China, but self-destruction on America’s part can’t help but seem like a decent trade-off. For Beijing, traditional American democracy is an obstacle forestalling the inevitable.
“Nowadays in China,” former Chinese trade minister Zhou Xiaoming says, “people are becoming more and more clear about the US’s objectives. We have not yet reached the darkest hour in the relationship.”
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