Anyone looking to advise the occupant of the Oval Office in January — whether that is incumbent President Donald Trump beginning a second term, or a new President Joe Biden — would do well to urge them to focus on the US relationship with China, which has cratered during Trump’s time in office.
Indeed, the President who takes the oath of office in 2021 may be the first in two decades whose biggest foreign policy challenge is not the wreckage left by Washington’s twin invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but dealing with a new, multipolar world order where the US is no longer the sole superpower.
China currently challenges the US for position as the world’s largest economy, and, with a massively expanded and emboldened military, threatens US forces or their allies in a number of potential hotspots. Observers have warned of a new Cold War, or even the potential of open conflict or proxy battles between the two powers.
Under Trump, Washington hit China with trade tariffs, sanctioned Chinese and Hong Kong officials, and stepped up aid and support for the democratic and self-governing island of Taiwan. This year has seen Trump repeatedly blaming Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic, and the shuttering of consulates in both the US and China.
Beijing, for its part, will be looking for a reset in January no matter how the election turns out. China’s leaders have not appreciated being a talking point in that contest, which has exposed how hawkishness towards Beijing is increasingly the cross-party consensus in Washington.
“The Chinese system at the moment has been told to wait and hold, and only act exactly in proportion to what the US does,” Manuel added. “Once the election is over the push for a reset will begin.”
“The China-US relationship is experiencing severe difficulties rarely seen in the past 41 years of diplomatic ties,” Cui said. “This has seriously undermined the fundamental interests of the Chinese and American people.”
China was doing well economically prior to the coronavirus, despite a trade war with the US, and has weathered the storm of shutdowns and nationwide epidemics better than many other countries, particularly larger nations like the US, Brazil and India. This has for many in China, especially its leaders, vindicated the country’s political model and top-down economic management, especially as life has returned to relative normality in recent months.
“And Chinese aggressiveness has reached unprecedented levels in the ‘Wolf Warrior’ era,” added Moon, referencing the purportedly bellicose and combative style of diplomacy adopted by Chinese diplomats in the Xi era.
Nick Marro, a China expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), agreed that the breakdown in relations has been driven by both sides.
“China is trying to keep ties from getting worse, but without setting the stage for relations to get better,” he said. “A lot of the current bilateral friction goes beyond trade, touching on issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea. China sees all of these areas as its ‘red lines,’ however, while the increasingly nationalistic domestic media environment has tied the hands of China’s leaders; any backing down in policy risks being seen as capitulating to Western pressure.”
“Biden will resume the traditional practice of relying heavily on US inter-agency community and America’s traditional allies, introducing more deliberate decision-making on US-China issues,” Moon said, in contrast to Trump’s often capricious policies toward Beijing.
“That approach will result in a more formal and predictable pattern of bilateral engagement that will help re-set the tone of relations by stabilizing the overall US-China relationship and avoid the possibility of misunderstandings that could escalate conflict.”
But he added that deeper issues will likely remain unsolved. “After decades of US-China dialogue and cooperation on the full range of bilateral issues, China has consistently refused to adopt policy changes and reforms addressing American concerns,” Moon said. “China’s formula for reset is thus unacceptable to the United States.”
Manuel agreed that a reset is “unlikely,” for all that Beijing, and potentially a Biden administration, may desire one.
“The differences are more of strategy,” he said. “Biden would push for greater use of US domestic industrial policy in the areas that the US argues China is cheating it at, and for greater use of allies.”
Any return to the soft-touch approach to China of the Clinton era is very unlikely, given bipartisan hostility towards Beijing in Washington and outrage over issues such as Xinjiang and militarizing the South China Sea.
During the 2012 presidential election, it was a topic of debate whether Russia or China was America’s biggest rival, but now few would disagree that Beijing presents the more substantial challenge, and any retreat from this would be seen as weakness, despite the arguable failure of the current US strategy to get China to behave differently.
In the past four years, Trump has blown hot and cold on China, showering Xi with praise and hailing progress towards a trade deal at one time, and casting Beijing as America’s number one enemy, responsible for all the evils in the world, at others.
Those who want to see relations repaired will be hoping for a pivot back towards the China doves in a second term Trump administration, but Marro, the EIU analyst, warned against assuming this would be likely.
“The first-phase trade deal was secured owing to President Trump’s concerns about his re-election; it was more about future tariff avoidance and the electoral blowback this could incur, rather than symbolising any real change in the US-China economic relationship,” he said.
“However, if President Trump were to be re-elected, he would no longer have the political constraints of a second term. This could free him to entertain even more radical actions against China, such as broader prohibitions on investment or financial flows between US and Chinese companies. That would come at the expense of the US and Chinese economies — not to mention derailing any global economic recovery we might see next year — but those considerations haven’t stopped him before.”