Why Beijing may want Trump to stick around

City talk | Patrick Baert 22 Oct 2020

Donald Trump has frustrated and enraged China during a tumultuous first term, but Beijing may welcome his reelection as it scans the horizon for the decline of its superpower rival.

Relations are as icy as at any time since formal ties were established four decades ago, with China warning it does not want to be drawn into a new Cold War with the United States.

Under his "America First" banner, Trump has portrayed China as the greatest threat to the United States and global democracy He has launched a massive trade war that has cost China billions of dollars, harangued Chinese tech firms and laid all the blame for the pandemic on Beijing. But another Trump triumph in November may have its advantages for China, as President Xi Jinping seeks to cement his nation's rise as a global superpower.

Its leadership could be handed "the opportunity to boost its global standing as a champion for globalization, multilateralism and international cooperation," says Zhu Zhiqun, professor of political science and international relations at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University.

Trump has pulled America from a sprawling Asia-Pacific commercial deal and climate agreements, imposed billions of dollars of tariffs on Chinese goods, and withdrawn the United States from the World Health Organization at the height of a pandemic.

"A second Trump term could give China more time to rise as a great power on the world stage," Zhu says.

Philippe Le Corre, a China expert at the Harvard Kennedy School in the United States, agrees an extension of Trump's America First policies would be of long-term benefit for Beijing. It would "partially cut Washington off from its traditional allies," he adds, and give China room to maneuver.

China's nationalists have openly cheered or jeered for Trump. "You can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world," Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Chinese Communist Party's Global Times, said in a tweet directed at the US president. "You help promote unity in China."

Trump is also lampooned on China's heavily censored social media as "Jianguo," meaning "help to build China."

Trump has undoubtedly inflicted economic and political pain on China. "China has lost out enormously in its plans for trade and technology," says Beijing-based political analyst Hua Po.

In January, Washington and Beijing signed a deal for a partial truce in their trade war. It obliged Beijing to import an additional US$200 billion (HK$1.56 trillion) in American products over two years, ranging from cars to machinery and oil to farm products.

Washington has also turned its guns on Chinese tech firms it says pose security threats. Besides TikTok, Mobile giant Huawei are on Trump's hit list. Enmity also extends into defense and human rights, with Hong Kong, Taiwan and the treatment of China's Muslim Uighur minority all making waves in United States.

But China may not win much relief in any of these areas if Trump loses to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Beijing worries that Biden is likely to renew American leadership on human rights, pressing China on issues of the Uygurs, Tibet and freedom in Hong Kong. And on tech and trade - crucial flash points in the US-China rivalry - it is unclear just how much room a Biden White House would have to maneuver.

"Biden will inherit the tariffs, and I'm doubtful he would lift them unilaterally," says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Beijing will probably have to concede to other US demands."

China will also have to come up with convincing arguments on data security if it is to avoid more damaging bans on its tech firms.

Washington sees Huawei - the global leader on 5G internet - as a serious security threat.

"Politically, it will be almost impossible for Biden to reverse these policies," says Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. "Huawei has been on the US radar as a security threat even before the Trump presidency."


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