(US midterms) No let up for China from Democrats

World | 7 Nov 2018 2:50 pm

The Democrats will retake the US House of Representatives, dealing a major blow to US President Donald Trump's domestic agenda, but if anxious politicians in Beijing think that means a reprieve from the White House, they should think again, CNN says in an analysis today.

China is one of the few policy areas where there is some bipartisan consensus. The Democrats broadly agree that the US should take tougher action against the rising power across a range of fronts, from the military, to trade, intelligence and diplomacy, CNN's Steven Jiang and Ben Westcott, write.

Desperate for a solution to the trade war that is weighing on China's economy, there is a view in China that a Democrat-led House might mean a softer stance against Beijing.

Nick Marro, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said that view was misguided because the Democrats have historically been more pro-labor unions and less in favor of unconstrained free trade than their opponents. "It's unlikely that they'll push for greater trade engagement with China," he said.

Even if the House wanted to, the power to impose tariffs on China is essentially vested in the executive -- President Trump. If he needs support from Congress on China policy in the future, the Democrats have shown few signs they will stand in his way.

All this is bad news for Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government has been scrambling to appease an increasingly hostile US administration, after attempts at flattery and acts of friendship early in Trump's term did not quite deliver.

Beyond the economic implications, the optics of the row with Trump are also hurting Xi at home.

Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Center for China Studies and well-connected political analyst, said Xi has faced rare criticism from inside the ruling Communist Party for his handling of the US crisis.

"He has been widely criticized, not by name of course, but subtly, for failing to handle Trump's multi-pronged challenge. He's very much on the defensive," Lam said.

The CNN analysis also says the idea that the Chinese government would pin its hope on the Democrats to ease tensions is remarkable, especially as Xi tightens his grip domestically and cracks down hard on anything perceived as dissent.

For decades, ever since President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to Communist China in 1972, it was his fellow Republicans -- more pro-business than the Democrats -- who tended to be China's closest allies in Washington.

In comparison, the Democrats -- who have traditionally tended to focus more on human rights issues in China -- were reluctant to let Beijing off the hook in the hopes of closer trade ties, a view that remains to this day.

But as frustration grew in the business community with China's perceived refusal to liberalize its economy, the Republicans also hardened their stance toward Beijing and business lobby groups cooled their pro-China stance.

"I don't think Beijing understands just how popular in DC a tougher line on China is," Isaac Stone Fish, senior fellow at the Asia Society, told CNN.

"There is surprising bipartisan support in DC for a tougher, or some would say more fair, policy to China, especially on trade but also human rights."

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