TRelations between China and the United States reached their lowest levels in decades before the elections in November, indicating what experts in both countries believe is the clear direction of one of the world’s most important bilateral relations.
Under the Trump administration, the United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong while increasing outreach to Taiwan, including arms sales. A trade deal to end the protracted tariff war has stalled and the United States has imposed more restrictions on Chinese state media.
Biden, who in a presidential debate referred to the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, as one of the many “thugs” committed by Trump, also promised to take a strong stand against China.
“The relationship is very bad,” said Cheng Xiaohi, assistant professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
It is a common view in the United States. “Regardless of who wins in the US presidential election, we should expect to see increased tensions between the United States and China across a wide range of economic, political, geostrategic, and human rights issues in the coming years,” Wendy said. Cutler, the former Acting Representative in the Office of the United States Trade Representative, focuses on Asia.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are particularly hot spots. In response to Beijing’s imposition of Hong Kong’s controversial National Security Act, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on officials associated with the campaign, lowered the city’s special customs status and warned financial institutions against conducting “large” transactions with anyone believed to have undermined autonomy.
In Taiwan, the United States sent high-ranking government visitors, sparking accusations from Beijing, increased military exercises in the region and launched a new economic dialogue with Taipei. There have been calls for the United States to end the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” a way to dissuade Beijing and Taipei from taking a military move by refusing to say whether the United States will come to Taiwan’s aid.
“Mutual distrust has never been higher,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Energy Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think a lot of people in China believe that the United States has basically abandoned the one-China policy,” she said, referring to Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of China.
While tensions will persist under the Biden administration, the main difference, observers expect, will be in the approach. Biden has pledged to work with allies to pressure China through the multilateral organizations that Trump has shunned. Analysts expect the Democratic candidate, if elected, to work with China on issues such as climate change and the response to the pandemic.
We need to have the rest of our friends with us, to tell China: ‘We play by the rules.’ Biden said in Thursday’s debate against Trump: ‘You play by them or you will pay for not playing with it economically.’
In contrast, Trump is expected to pursue a more confrontational unilateral strategy that is likely to increase tensions. While Trump’s approach is likely to place more immediate pressure on China, others view Biden as more inclusive and predictable.
A second term for Trump portends unpredictability in several ways. During the early years of his presidency, Trump spoke fondly of Xi, and experts in China deemed him “a dealmaking businessman who is not focused on human rights,” according to Jack Delaill, director of the Center for Contemporary Study. China at the University of Pennsylvania.
A trade deal, previously seen as his top priority regarding China, could take precedence over human rights. Trump last year described the pro-democracy protests as “riots.” According to his former national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump told Shi to “go ahead with building camps” in Xinjiang, describing the mass internment campaign as “exactly the right thing to do.”
Some optimists in China believe that another four years of Trump’s rule will give both countries time to negotiate a trade deal. However, others believe that the possibility exists that the relationships could significantly worsen. The current situation couldn’t be worse. Cheng said, “If things go wrong, military conflict will come close.”
Beijing has so far responded to the Trump administration’s various moves with reciprocal measures to reduce the escalating tensions. Four more years of Trump’s coincidence with an increasingly aggressive Chinese leadership could put an end to restraint.
It is possible that China has been shouting and not responding to Trump’s provocations during what may be the final months of the administration. With a re-election, all bets will be on this front, “Delaill said.
For hawks in China, another term for Trump is exemplary. In China, state media portrayed the pandemic in the United States, the Black Lives Matter protests and the chaos of the first presidential debate as other examples of the failed American democratic experiment.
“While China is concerned about Trump’s aggression in the short term, it also believes that in the long term it accelerates the American decline,” said Rush Duchi, director of the Brookings Chinese Strategy Initiative.
But few in China saw a huge difference between the two candidates when they met in the final debate. In a clip posted on Weibo, one commentator noted: “These two should enjoy their early years, not reveal their flaws in public,” and another wrote: “American comedians have taken over the stage.”
As this debate began, Xi gave a lengthy speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the “Resistance to American Aggression and Aid to Korea” war between 1950 and 1953.
Speaking in the Great Hall of the People, Xi said the Chinese have learned to “speak to the invaders in a language they understand.”
He declared, “The Chinese people will not create problems, but we are not afraid of them. Regardless of the difficulties or challenges we face, our legs will not shake and our back will not bend.”
Additional reporting by Helen Davidson and Lillian Yang.
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