Relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have seen massive changes since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. The 2020 election between Trump and democratic candidate Joe Biden will prove instrumental for future U.S. policy on China, with far-reaching effects in both countries and the rest of the world.
The race between incumbent Trump and Biden is the most hotly contested U.S. election in decades.
Trump and Biden differ greatly on a wide range of issues. But there’s one issue they both seem to agree on: America should get tougher on China.
However, there are some key differences in the two candidates’ attitudes toward Beijing.
The US and China are in a confrontation not seen since the Cold War of the 20th century. The so-called “era of engagement” is coming to an end, as the two countries battle each other in trade, finance, political ideology, technology, and geopolitics.
‘New cold war’
Trump’s second-term agenda pledges to continue the tough China policy his administration has charted over the last four years.
The 2017 National Security Strategy named China as America’s primary strategic competitor. In mid-2018, the United States began imposing tariffs on Chinese exports, as part of the Trump administration’s strategy to even out the trade deficit with China, and compel Beijing to follow the norms of international business.
Last October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo targeted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its authoritarian rule, human rights violations, and attempts to spread its system to other countries. The Party, Pompeo said, is “truly hostile to the United States and our values.”
This June and July, Pompeo and three other top White House officials gave speeches further condemning the CCP, while making clear that America supports the Chinese people.
A Trump reelection means that the next four years will continue to build upon the path he started in his first term. This includes growing efforts to push back against the CCP’s widespread influence operations and its “authoritarian model” of international relations.
Former Vice President Biden also promises to be tough on China, but his vision differs significantly from that of Trump.
According to Biden’s campaign, the most effective means of meeting the challenge from China “is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”
It is unclear how Biden and other top Democrats would handle the ideological dimension of the Sino-US dynamic, which under the Trump administration is increasingly cast in terms of freedom versus Marxian totalitarianism.
The legacy of ‘engagement’
Biden’s China stance is different from that of Trump and even Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate whom Biden defeated in the Democratic Party primaries. While Trump and Sanders advocate a more aggressive strategy to counter the CCP Biden’s approach focuses inward.
A New York Times report said that “Mr. Biden’s aides emphasize a restoration of U.S. domestic strength.”
Biden and his policy advisors are from the “engagement” school, which favours closer cooperation with communist China. They hope that by increasing trade and cultural ties with China, Beijing can be brought in line with liberal-democratic values.
Jake Sullivan, an important advisor to Biden, said that the United States “should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves.”
According to the US intelligence community, Beijing prefers that Trump does not stay on as president.
“China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win re-election,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, said on August 7.
The contrast between the Biden and Trump programs offers some insight as to why Chinese leaders might favour a Biden presidency come next January.
Critics of Biden point to his long-time support for engagement with China, a position that many see as outdated and out of touch today, with the CCP
A report by NBC says that when Biden was vice president, he “embraced the idea that the United States could coax China into acting as a ‘responsible stakeholder’”. Now, he calls Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “thug.”
Earlier, Biden criticized Trump’s China policy, claiming that his tariffs are reckless and that Beijing, while a “serious competitor,” is no opponent of the United States.
But regardless of who takes the White House, it is unlikely that U.S. attitudes on China will change too much. Biden has sharpened his rhetoric against Beijing, saying that he would use tariffs when needed.
The ideological dimension
There is one aspect that could be critical to the future of US-China relations.
Compared with Trump’s program, Biden’s is relatively, says SinoInsider, a risk consultancy that specializes in Chinese politics.
In recent decades, the CCP has adopted “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” convincing many into thinking that it had given up Marxism for a pragmatic blend of state capitalism and nationalism. However, the Party still indoctrinates the population in the theories of class struggle, atheism, and other aspects of the communist creed, and aims to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant superpower.
“When it comes to handling key issues like trade, cybersecurity, and the ‘new cold war’ confrontation between the Chinese and U.S. political systems,” SinoInsider wrote in a September 21 article, “Trump administration officials have highlighted the ideological nature of the conflict between American democratic values and China’s Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism.”
Such a confrontation could be regime-ending for the CCP, according to SinoInsider’s experts. This is because unlike the robust U.S. system of constitutional government and rule by law, the CCP’s Marxism-Leninism has lost currency among both the Chinese people and leadership. Yet the Party only continues to expand the scope of its authoritarian repression, as seen by the installation of high-tech AI-assisted surveillance and censorship, and the marked upswing in persecutions of religious believers and dissidents.
Without the economic prosperity provided by a favourably international environment — such as that which existed during the engagement era — Beijing is hard-pressed to justify communist one-party rule to its people.
Additionally, external and domestic crises increase the stakes of struggle within the CCP itself, as different factions take advantage of the difficulties facing the leadership to manoeuvre their way into positions of more power and prestige.
Sustained ideological pressure on the CCP would eventually cause the system to crack, leading to reform or some other form of political transformation. But failure to confront the Party on its ideological weak points could give it opportunities to put on airs of reconciliation and chip away at the international consensus against it.
“As president, Biden could put up a ‘getting tough’ stance on China while simultaneously conducting “soft engagement,’” SinoInsider warns.
This arrangement coincides with the CCP’s playbook of surviving crises that threaten its power, allowing it to recover its strength for another day.