By Chris Galebinge
Over the past few decades, China’s perception of American politicians has been based on the clear-cut difference between the two parties’ positions: the Democrats are more concerned with topics within the ideological realm such as democracy and human rights, while the Republicans are more concerned with free trade and the economic issues. This kind of perception was used to determine which presidential candidate is in China’s best interest to be elected. But they have come to realize that while Republicans and Democrats differ on specific issues of policy towards China, the rationale for their policies is the same: to promote U.S. national interests. As China’s hard and soft power increases, a structural conflict between China and the United States begins to emerge, and both the Republicans and the Democrats have the incentive to contain China. Therefore, regardless of which of Trump and Biden is elected, the outlook of U.S.-China relationship is not promising.
If Trump manages to get re-elected, the U.S.-China relationship will be at greater risk in the short term. Geo-politically, Trump is breaking the carefully maintained balance on the issue of Taiwan. Trump’s administration has just approved weapon export to Taiwan worth around $1.8 billions, including rocket launchers, sensors, and artillery. Although his predecessors also engaged in arms sales with Taiwan, they avoided further intensifying tensions to escalate the issue into a military conflict. If the Trump administration continues a provocative gesture in the next term, we cannot rule out the possibility of “cold war” turning into a “hot war.”
Economically, Trump imposed unilateral tariffs on more than $550 billions of Chinese products, which he claimed would shrink the U.S. trade deficit with China and encourage companies to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. While the “phase one” trade deal with China seems to have succeeded in part in reducing trade deficit with China, the more important issues of reshoring U.S. factory production and demanding structural change in China’s economic policies are not well addressed. In his next term (if there is one), Trump will continue to target China with economic sanctions. The extent to which these sanctions will help the U.S. economy is unclear, but their negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship is considerable. If Trump’s goal is to reduce dependence on China, economic decoupling is the most important aspect of the process. But this decision will not only damage the economies of China and the U.S., global trading systems would also be affected.
Trump’s insistence on an “America first” policy has begun to weaken America’s international standing and influence. Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from international organizations and agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal and Paris Agreement is damaging to the image of the U.S. at international level. China, on the other hand, would seek the chance to take over international influence left by the United States. Trump’s unilateral decisions and actions alienated the U.S. from its allies, which could make it harder to form an anti-Beijing alliance. Therefore, from a Chinese perspective, despite immediate losses, short-term risks and escalation, Trump winning the election is not necessarily the worse outcome.
As a traditional American politician, Biden has the potential to unite anti-China sentiments in both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, as well as forming consensus among allies to pressure China on certain issues. In contrast to Trump, Biden would return to international agreements and reestablish American leadership in international affairs and relationship with allies. With support from allies, the United States would have greater leverage when pressuring China on an international level. The United States, Europe and Japan are likely to demand that China to fulfill the various commitments it made when it joined the World Trade Organization. Essentially, China will be asked to significantly open up its domestic market. Criticism, accusations and even sanctions against China in ideological realms such as democracy and human rights will increase. On the issue of Taiwan, Biden is likely to continue the Obama administration’s policies. For instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the strategic rebalancing in Asia will be relaunched.
On the other hand, Biden and China have some interests in common. Biden does not support the Trump administration’s “trade war” against China, which he believes is “a tax on U.S. businesses and consumers.” It is also less likely for Biden to push for a “decoupling” of the United States and China, which is China’s biggest concern at the moment. Biden will not take adventurous policies to push China and the United States to the brink of military conflict. More negotiations with China to prevent crises and to enhance cooperation in areas that are in the national interest of the United States is expected.
From a Chinese perspective, Trump is acting as if he puts more emphasis on practical interests and hard power rivalry than ideological conflict between China and the US. In a way, China is more willing to deal with such an American president. Comparatively speaking, if Biden wins in the election, he will highlight the ideological differences between China and the US and build an anti-Beijing alliance led by the US, which will make China particularly passive.
From my point of view, the conflict between China and the United States is less ideological but structural. The realist approach argues that states are compelled by their states’ position within the international power structure to behave in ways that seek to maximize state gains. That is to say, states’ interests are determined by their position within the international power structure. As China’s position in the structure rises, it starts to have conflicting interests with the United States in certain domains. For instance, China has shifted its role as the mass-producer of low-end industries to engaging in more high-end manufacturing, which Trump believes should be the job of the U.S. and American people. In the ICT sector, Huawei’s 5G technology challenges the dominant position of the United States in the Internet domain. Instead of more prominent Chinese companies like Ali and Tencent, whose businesses are built on the existing Open Systems Interconnection model, Huawei is being targeted for building its own telecommunication infrastructure and network model. Therefore, as long as the structural conflict remains, the U.S.-China relationship will not be fundamentally altered by a change in leadership.