By Yvonne Yan '21
Americans are not the only group of citizens rattled by the approaching election. On the other end of the globe, Chinese citizens are just paying as close of an attention as their American pals. The primary reason is to make derogatory memes out of Donald Trump, but the unprecedented popularity of the 2020 election in China manifests a hardly deniable truth – the outcome of this election will define the next four, even 10 years, of Sino-US relationship. Whether it will be a 180 degree reversal or an express train ride to hell, it is important for us to understand how Trump, or Biden, if elected, will open up the next chapter of the greatest power rivalry in this century.
OK, I have to admit that 180 degree reversal is highly unlikely and many Chinese political elites will agree with me. There is this term thrown around in Chinese political discourse, “the Washington consensus”, referring to a bi-partisan anti-China sentiment in Washington. To those holding such a view, whoever will be sitting in the Oval Office would matter little since the relationship shall only worsen.
Ironically, the supposed Washington consensus might be the only handful of consensuses existing in American domestic political landscape. Trump’s campaign rests on demonizing China, portraying it as the villain breaking the rules, stealing jobs from hardworking Americans and should be punished by high tariffs, Huawei Ban and public humiliation. Biden used to criticize Trump for launching the trade war and advocated for bilateral solutions, but the rising anti-China sentiment domestically has forced him to ditch his old moderate tone and turned to calling China as a “thug”. In the past 4 years, no other policy in congress has garnered more bipartisan votes than sanctions against China, again confirming the supposed Washington Consensus.
As the US grows more belligerent, China is adding fuel to the fire. The Uighur concentration camps, expansionist policies in South China Sea and predatory economic practices under the name of international cooperation is not only blatantly challenging American hegemony and the US-led liberal order, but is also disregarding human rights to such an outrageous extent that is virtually handing Washington ammunition to attack itself.
For all these reasons, it is reasonable for Chinese elites to be pessimistic about the future of Sino-US relationship. However, a deeper dive into how Biden and Trump differs may offer us something different than a bleak future only heading downhill.
Another 4 years of Trump?
Both autocratic leaders of great powers, Xi hardly shares Putin’s appreciation for Trump. Russia has profited considerably from Trump’s antagonism towards China and the many global power vacuums Trump left for Russia to take advantage of. As the focal point of Trump’s foreign policy campaign, another four years of Trump would probably make things worse for two reasons.
First, without the pressure for reelection, the erraticism underpinning Trump’s foreign policies would only grow worse, making future collaboration with China even more unlikely. Trump picked on China not because China truly poses the greatest threat to the US – the Kremlin would be quite unhappy if we don’t mention them. Trump chose China because it makes the better target for demonization – the trade deficits and outsourcing companies make a coherent, albeit misleading story of China stealing jobs and breaking rules. If he’s reelected, China would be left with only one certainty – Trump will remain aggressive and what he will actually do to hurt China? We don’t know. Dealing with such tremendous uncertainty, placing trust in Washington is naïve and we may see China refusing to yield to American pressure on trade, territorial disputes and human rights abuse since Chinese leaders cannot be assured that sanctions will halt once they compromise and may fear that Trump will exploit Beijing’s willingness to cooperate, making Beijing look weak on the international stage.
Second, Trump’s rhetoric on China is inherently racist, causing an inevitable clash with and the surge in Chinese nationalism. Targeting the CCP regime and targeting Chinese people are two different issues and Trump doesn’t even pay lip service to such a distinction. Calling COVID the Chinese virus, implementing travel ban and tightening immigration laws directly targeted at Chinese immigrants, Trump is manufacturing hatred against an ethnicity, not a political entity. Chinese nationalism is already orchestrated by the CCP for their own political ends, so the clash between the two ushers in darker times to come.
Some may argue that Chinese leaders are pragmatic and long-term thinkers in nature, so they will tolerate Trump’s provocative tone and tamper Chinese nationalists when they perceive collaboration to be imperative, but nationalism has already taken on a life of its own – nationalist protests seriously undermine Chinese efforts to either remove certain disputes from the spotlight (Taiwan) or when trying to improve diplomatic relationship with other countries (South Korea). Chinese citizens are neither blind to Trump’s racism and they shall demand a more aggressive China towards Trump when the latter repeatedly make incendiary comments.
What difference will Biden make?
Before Biden switched gears and joined the anti-China camp, he enjoyed a decent relationship China. Biden is one of the White House officials spending the most private time with Xi – 35 private dinners and he was even called “China’s old friend” by Xi, underpinning at least some appreciation from China. However, the domestic political landscape does not allow Biden to play the rapprochement card Obama used, so even though he might not be as harsh to China as he sounds now when he’s inside the Oval Office, we should not expect coziness between the two great powers.
How is Biden different then? Well, there are again two main factors. First, Biden will definitely rely more on multilateral solutions, which gives Sino-US collaboration a chance. Liberals in the US have been appalled by Trump’s isolationist moves and Biden’s foreign policy cabinet is mostly filled with people from the Obama administration – a period when international institutions and other players were engaged. If we assume that Biden will do the case, then there are at least two scenarios where we can hope to see some quality Sino-US collaboration that may warm up the current stalemate – climate change and COVID. China is becoming the leader of global climate change initiative – implementing carbon trade schemes, announcing plans to become carbon neutral by 2060 and leading R&D in renewable energy. To combat climate change as he promises, it is impossible for Biden not to elicit the help of China. COVID is a similar situation. It is a global pandemic and China was the first country to start research and its current vaccine development is full-speed ahead. The pandemic requires global effort and China cannot be left out of the picture. It is certain that we shall see increased Sino-US dialogue and joint activities on this front.
Second, Biden is far more predictable than Trump and plays by the rules. The merits of a such a leader is not that he will spare China. On the contrary, Biden is very likely to keep condemning human rights abuse and land grabs in the South China Sea, even in a manner more aggressive than Trump. However, China is experienced in dealing with leaders like that and equally experienced is Biden in dealing with Beijing. China is comfortable with international institutions, with particular expertise in designing around the rules without explicit violation. China’s bad behaviors are sometimes called out and once that happens, Beijing puts up an obedient act, pays lip service to the rulings and goes back to its old practices once let off the hook. Therefore, Beijing is adept at coping with international rules and dodging prosecution without causing serious confrontation. It is thus reasonable to hope that sanctions through formal institutional channels will not cause intense confrontation as it allows China room for maneuver and negotiation. However, that does not mean a potential for sizeable improvement in the bilateral relationship. China will not abandon its egregious human rights violations and other internationally condemned misconducts which the US is bound to react to, it is only the means through which Biden approach these issues allow more graceful resolution.
Taken as a whole, there is no reason to believe that we will see considerable improvement Sino-US relationship as that trend is determined by a multitude of factors outside the control of the executive branch, but the characteristics underpinning a possible Biden administration may bring some hope for constructive bilateral collaborations and active problem solving, pulling the two states out of the current quagmire.