Hong Kong – (CNN)US – President Donald Trump recently claimed that if his Democratic rival Joe Biden wins this November’s presidential election, China will “own” the United States and Americans will have to learn to speak Chinese.
The suggestion that Democrats are soft on China is a reoccurring policy theme that the President has returned to throughout his four years in office. Now, as Trump prepares to take on Biden in a bid to secure a second term, his administration is once again amping up the anti-China rhetoric.
Ahead of this week’s Republican National Convention, Trump’s campaign announced its second term agenda. The short document sets out 10 core priorities. Near the top of the agenda is “End our reliance on China,” listed right after “Jobs” and “Eradicate Covid-19.”
The campaign said it plans to bring back 1 million manufacturing jobs from China and hold the country “fully accountable for allowing the virus to spread around the world.”
Since Trump took office, relations between the two countries have spiraled to their lowest point in decades. Trump has waged a tariff war, sanctioned Chinese officials, angered Beijing with his support for Taiwan, and banned Chinese technology companies, including prized telecommunications giant Huawei.
Though concerns about China have become decidedly more bipartisan in recent years, there remains a view among many in Washington that Chinese leaders would prefer a President Biden come 2021. It’s an idea that was given fresh impetus, after William Evanina, a top US intelligence official, said in a statement last month that Beijing would rather Trump lose the election.
During a key note address at the opening night of the Republican convention, Monday, former ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley said Biden would be “great for Communist China.”
But experts say the reality is far more complex, and China’s leadership remains decidedly split on which candidate would better align with the country’s long-term strategic aims.
From Beijing’s perspective, Trump appears to have weakened America’s traditional alliances and international reputation. Chinese propaganda has cited Trump’s response to the pandemic, which has now killed more than 177,000 Americans, as proof of the US’ failing political system and faltering global leadership.
On Chinese social media, Trump has been mockingly named “Chuan Jianguo,” or “Build up the Country Trump,” with online users positing that Trump is bolstering Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime by wrecking America. Although Trump has unleashed an onslaught of attacks on China in the form of tariffs, sanctions and bans, he has largely acted unilaterally, without the support of key allies.
“They know Biden will be a multilateralist, whether it’s on trade, whether it’s on security, whether it’s even on human rights,” said Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations. “He will have a multilateral approach to China and those people are fearful of a Biden presidency.”
During Trump’s presidency, China has been given a window to be more assertive on the international stage. After Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), Xi said China would provide $2 billion over two years to help with the global pandemic response. China has pressed ahead with a national security law in Hong Kong, hardened its stance on self-governing Taiwan, which China views as an inseparable part of its territory, and continued to aggressively push its claims of sovereignty in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
According to Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of “China’s Crony Capitalism,” Biden would reinstate America’s support for multilateral organizations, including the WHO, while strengthening trade and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliances — all of which would constrain China.
Though Biden only mentioned China once in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, he has repeatedly condemned Trump for being weak on China. He’s called Xi a “thug” and his campaign ads have claimed Trump hasn’t held China accountable for the spread of the pandemic, amid suggestions Chinese officials covered up the initial outbreak.
In the Democrats’ sweeping 92-page party platform outlining policies including health care, climate change and the economy, China is mentioned 22 times. The document outlines how “Democrats will take aggressive action against China or any other country that tries to undercut American manufacturing,” work with “allies to stand up to China,” condemn “China’s mass internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang, and enforce sanctions on entities “responsible for undercutting Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Biden wrote in a Foreign Affairs article earlier this year that, “China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor, trade, technology, and transparency, so they continue to reflect democratic interests and values.”
Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, said China has “lost a lot of friends in Asia” by using its economic power to coerce other countries into endorsing the Chinese line. “If there is a Biden administration, building a stronger coalition in Asia will be a lot easier.”
But whereas a Biden presidency would be challenging for Beijing, Trump presents something altogether different for risk-averse leaders in Beijing: volatility.
In a recent US intelligence report compiled by top official Evanina, Trump’s “unpredictability” was cited as a reason why China would prefer Biden.
When Trump first took office, he sang Xi’s praises after they dined together at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. But that hasn’t stopped him alternating between aiming threats at China and announcing that he and Xi “love each other.”
Experts say that this type of unpredictability increases the risk of military escalation, in areas where interests overlap, such as the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan.
“We do not have a good communications and crisis prevention with China the way we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” Shirk said. “So it’s a very dangerous situation.”
Chinese state media has called Biden “smoother” to deal with, creating room to cooperate on major international issues like climate change and nuclear non-proliferation. Henry Wang, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Center for Globalization, said that under a Biden administration, there would be more opportunities for dialogue.
Pei said the split in Chinese attitudes toward Trump and Biden depend on whether officials in Beijing are taking a short- or long-term view. Those who take a long-term view prefer Trump, since they view him as being incompetent and unable to get allies on board, thus giving China more room to maneuver. Another four years of Trump would lead to more internal divisions within America, reducing its ability to successfully wage a long-term struggle against China, Pei said.
“The Biden administration can devise a long-term strategy that is sustainable, that is multilateral with ally support, that will actually contain Chinese power, much more effectively for the next two to three decades,” Pei said.
Those focused on the near-term would prefer Biden, since he would put a pause in the rapidly deteriorating relations. “A Biden administration will most likely have a pause in what I call this demolition process, Pei said. “It’s not in the US’ fundamental interest to demolish the most important relationship in the world.”