Like everyone else across the country and the world, China’s leaders are likely watching the contentious presidential campaign unfolding in the United States and anxiously wondering what it means for them. After their four-year rumble with Donald Trump, the Chinese should be counting the months, weeks, days, and minutes to the November election, hoping a (more pliable) Democrat takes over the White House, right? That’s certainly what Trump believes. The Chinese, he tweeted, “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!”
That’s not necessarily true. From Beijing’s perspective, while a Democratic presidency may restore a more predictable form of American diplomacy, that may not best serve Chinese interests. In fact, four more years of Trump—though likely packed with annoyances and disputes—might present tantalizing opportunities for China to expand its influence around East Asia and the world.
Of course, we can’t know with certainty what outcome China’s senior cadres prefer, or if they even agree among themselves. No candidate should expect an endorsement from People’s Daily. Still, there are clues. In a highly unusual comment, the former Chinese trade negotiator Long Yongtu reportedly told a Shenzhen conference late last year, “We want Trump to be reelected; we would be glad to see that happen.” The president’s tweets make him “easy to read,” Long said, and thus “the best choice in an opponent for negotiations.” In May, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Communist Party–-run newspaper Global Times, tweeted at Trump that the Chinese “wish for your reelection because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world. You help promote unity in China.” Hu added that “Chinese netizens call you ‘Jianguo,’ meaning ‘help to construct China.’” Long and Hu may not be speaking for the Beijing leadership, but no Chinese official or state-media figure would risk making such statements in public if their views were taboo in the inner circle of power.
What gives? Many Americans believe (erroneously) that Trump is the first president to stand up to China. After all, his administration has slapped tariffs on China’s exports, sanctioned some of its most important companies and officials, and pressured Beijing to play fair on trade—and the Chinese want more? Sure, Beijing would much rather have avoided a costly trade spat with its largest customer. But Trump may not strike as much terror in the hearts of Beijing’s top cadres as you might expect.
“He has some gut feelings that China doesn’t like, but he has gut feelings China does not really mind,” Minxin Pei, a specialist in Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College, told me. “He does not really see China as an ideological adversary. Trump can be persuaded if the price is right.”
For China, that’s key. Although Trump has sometimes acted on political and human-rights issues Beijing finds highly sensitive—most recently, signing legislation to impose sanctions for the Chinese government’s abusive treatment of minority Uighurs—he personally has often appeared disinterested, even dismissive. In a new book, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton claimed that Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping over dinner in Osaka that the detention camps Beijing was building to control the Uighur community were the right thing to do. Trump also recently admitted that he delayed sanctions on officials involved with the camps to smooth negotiations for his coveted trade deal with China.
Trump has shown similar ambivalence toward Beijing’s intensifying crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong. The president promised stiff penalties to counter Beijing’s latest move—imposing a national-security law on Hong Kong aimed at wiping out remaining resistance—and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has made bellicose statements and threats over the move. But Trump’s commitment to the Hong Kong cause has often seemed lukewarm. Last year, as millions marched in the city, he sidestepped supporting them, at one point even mouthing the Communist Party’s line by calling the protests “riots” and a purely Chinese matter. “That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China,” he said last August.
Even on trade—the subject featured most often in his tweets—Trump has proved weak-kneed. Chinese negotiators deftly convinced him to push off discussion of issues most critical to American business—state programs that heavily subsidize Chinese competitors, for example—to a “phase two” of talks, which have yet to materialize. Instead, Trump settled for a narrower “phase one” deal, signed in January, that was centered mainly on large Chinese purchases of American farm produce, but included little to alter Beijing’s discriminatory practices.
Trump has done even less to contain China’s growing clout on the world stage. His administration’s disdain for international institutions has ceded influence within them to China—most notably, with his recent announcement of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. While Pompeo has repeatedly bashed Xi’s pet diplomatic program, the infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative, as a dangerous trap to ensnare unsuspecting poor nations, the administration hasn’t bothered offering an alternative. Trump has more aggressively contested Beijing’s controversial claim to nearly the entire South China Sea by increasing the frequency of naval missions sent through the disputed waters to uphold freedom of navigation, but he hasn’t followed that up with any consistent diplomacy in Southeast Asia, and he himself has generally ignored the issue.
“China’s leadership is pretty confident that, while they haven’t won the South China Sea, they are certainly winning,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, told me. Preventing that will require a collective international effort led by the United States, but “you can be pretty certain that is not going to happen under the Trump administration,” Poling said.
Here lies the main reason Beijing may not mind another Trump term: His style of foreign policy—unilateral, personalized, and fixated on dollars-and-cents matters—has severely weakened America’s traditional system of alliances. While President Barack Obama attempted a “pivot” to Asia, Trump has taken only occasional interest in the region, especially beyond trade and his fleeting dalliances with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Beijing has surely noted that Trump has strained relations with America’s two closest allies in the region—South Korea and Japan—with his persistent and petty squabbles over trade and the costs of U.S. military bases in those countries.
That suits Beijing just fine. As Washington steps back, China tries to lurch forward. Beijing has become more and more assertive over the course of the Trump presidency. The Chinese propaganda machine is capitalizing on Trump’s woeful response to the coronavirus pandemic to mock the president and American democracy, raise doubts about U.S. global leadership, and offer up China as a more responsible world power. The Global Times’ Hu is having a field day with Trump’s struggles, pouring forth an almost daily barrage of jibes. “You have no idea how to control epidemic,” he tweeted about Trump in June. “If the grumpy America were someone in life, how nasty the person is.” In another, he simply proclaimed, “Washington is rather stupid.” China’s government, with its superior virus-busting skills, “bolstered international confidence in beating the virus,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom recently argued. (Though it is far from clear whether these comments are having a tangible impact on global public opinion, many of China’s diplomats and officials certainly see them as effective.)
From China’s standpoint, Trump is not so much tougher as he is different. Previous presidents tried to pressure China within the rules of the current global order; Trump prefers to act outside of that system. For instance, his predecessors turned to the World Trade Organization to challenge China’s unfair trade practices, filing 21 complaints between 2004 and early 2017 (with a strong record of success). The Trump administration, openly disparaging of the WTO, has submitted only two complaints, one of which was a response to China’s retaliation against Trump’s own tariffs. Whereas previous presidents have sought to win over other powers, notably in Europe and East Asia, with similar interests in forcing China to play by the rules, this White House has alienated much of the European Union by threatening hefty tariffs, criticized NATO, and launched personal attacks on some of the West’s most influential leaders. In Asia, meanwhile, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact aimed at solidifying American ties to its allies.
In that sense, a president with a more “normal” American foreign policy—in which Washington works closely with its friends and stands behind international norms and institutions—isn’t good for China. The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has already vowed to forge a coalition of countries to isolate and confront China. “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles,” Biden argued. “China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.” That, and not Trump, is the stuff of Chinese nightmares.
Whoever wins in November, policy toward China isn’t likely to soften. A near consensus has formed in Washington, across the political aisle, that China is a strategic threat to the U.S., and there may be no way to turn back the clock to the more halcyon days of patient American engagement. “There are far fewer doves left, even on the left,” Poling, of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said. “A Democrat who comes in now is not going to be an Obama Democrat when it comes to China. That is no longer politically possible.”
Claremont McKenna’s Pei speculated that some in Beijing may still prefer a Biden victory, if only hoping for a pause in tensions as the Democrats, at least at first, focus on their domestic priorities. But the Chinese, he said, might also come to regret it. “The Trump people believe that the U.S. alone can deal China a fatal blow,” Pei said. “Democrats would likely reach out to allies to form a much more united front against China. If the Democrats succeed, China would be in a much more difficult situation in the long run.”