BEIJING (AP) — As the U.S. presidential campaign moves closer to a Donald Trump-Joe Biden rematch, China is watching uneasily.
First, there are concerns about the campaign itself, where candidates are likely to talk tough on China. That could threaten the fragile improvements in U.S.-China relations seen in recent months.
Then there’s the outcome of the November vote. Neither candidate is particularly appealing to Beijing. While Biden has looked for areas of cooperation with China, Beijing is concerned about his efforts to unite allies in the Indo-Pacific in a coalition against China. It’s also nervous about his approach to Taiwan after he has repeatedly said he would have U.S. troops defend it in a conflict with China.
Trump, with his isolationist approach to foreign policy, might be more hesitant to defend Taiwan. But nothing can be ruled out given his unpredictability and his tough rhetoric on China, which he blames for the COVID-19 outbreak that dogged the end of his term. He also could deepen a trade war that hasn’t eased since his presidency.
“For China, no matter who won the U.S. presidential election, they would be two ‘bowls of poison’,” said Zhao Minghao, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Even with the slight improvement in relations, tensions remain high, particularly over Taiwan. The question of who is in the White House could have enormous consequences not only for U.S.-China relations but for peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
Zhao’s views are echoed by a number of analysts in both countries, who suggest Beijing may find Biden the lesser of two evils for his steadiness over Trump’s unpredictability but also point out that the Chinese government agonizes over Biden’s success in building partnerships to counter China.
“No matter who takes office, it will not change the overall direction of America’s strategic competition with China,” said Sun Chenghao, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University. “China doesn’t have any preference for who will win the presidential election because China has experience dealing with either of them for four years.”
In China’s social media, many commentators appear to be favoring Trump, whom they see not only as a businessman up for a deal but also a disruptive force that undermines American democracy and U.S. global leadership to the benefit of Beijing. Trump’s policies and remarks as president earned him the nickname of Chuan Jianguo, or “Trump, the (Chinese) nation builder,” an implication that he was helping Beijing.
Trump’s recent accusation that Taiwan took the chip-making industry from the U.S. has been seen as a sign that Trump, a businessman at heart, may not be willing to defend the self-governed island that Beijing considers to be Chinese territory.
Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, cautioned against nationalistic sentiments in China that could be at odds with government officials and elites. “With Trump, there is no floor to U.S.-China relations, and Trump poses great risks and uncertainties, including the possibility of a military conflict,” Sun said, adding China in 2020 was convinced that Trump could attack Taiwan to win reelection.
“There might be some benefit associated with Trump’s potential to damage alliances and partnerships, shaking the world’s confidence in America’s leadership, but the benefit for China will not be able to offset the even more significant damage he would impose on the relationship with China,” she said.
Trump started off on the wrong foot with China when he took a congratulatory call on his 2016 election victory from the president of Taiwan, angering the government in Beijing, which opposes any official contact between Taiwan and foreign governments.
Relations appeared to get back on track in 2017, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in April and, six months later, hosted the U.S. president in Beijing with a dinner at the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace.
But in 2018, Trump started a trade war by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports. China retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods, and the tariffs on both sides remain to this day.
The COVID-19 outbreak in China in 2020 pushed Trump’s relationship with the country to the point of no return. As the virus spread to the United States, he tried to deflect criticism of his handling of the pandemic by blaming China, drawing strong rebukes from Beijing.
When Biden and Trump squared off in 2020, U.S. intelligence agencies reported before the election that China viewed Trump as “unpredictable” and opposed his reelection. A subsequent assessment issued months after the election said that China ultimately had not interfered on either side and “considered but did not deploy” influence operations intended to affect the outcome.
Experts say the Chinese also are unlikely to interfere with the U.S. presidential election this year, partly because they are unwilling and partly because they have yet to build up the capabilities. If Beijing is to interfere, it is more likely to try to discredit U.S. democracy, amplify partisan discord, and undermine faith in the election process, they say.
Once elected, Biden kept his predecessor’s China policy. Not only did he keep the tariffs but Biden also limited access by Chinese companies to advanced technologies, sanctioned Chinese officials over human rights violations and expanded restrictions on China-bound U.S. monies.
Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in 2022 called China the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order.”
Then in early 2023, tensions spiked again when the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon. It took months of diplomacy to set up a meeting between Biden and Xi that resulted in some modest agreements and a vow to stabilize relations.
Miles Yu, director of the China center at the Hudson Institute, said the U.S. has come to a bipartisan agreement on China, with the two parties sharing “pretty much the same China policy.” In response, China’s ruling Communist Party has a new U.S. policy, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat, as long as it’s an American cat, it’s a bad cat,” Yu said, borrowing from the famous saying by China’s reformist politician Deng Xiaoping that encouraged market reforms regardless of ideology.
But several experts expressed a guarded preference for Biden because of his steadiness, which they say Beijing may appreciate in managing the already-fraught relations.
“Trump is by nature volatile and cruel and is a person hard to be familiar with,” said Shi Yinhong, international relations professor at Renmin University of China. While Beijing can expect its relationship with Washington to stay the course if Biden is reelected, it may not wish to deal with Trump’s hysteria toward China and possibly drastic changes if he returns to the White House, Shi said.
Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China, said Beijing is more worried about Trump’s hostility toward globalization than Biden’s worldwide efforts to build alliances. “We don’t expect any one of them would be better for China, but the key (for China) is to continue its opening and reforms, and high-quality development,” Wang said.
But Shi Sushi, a veteran commentator in Beijing, said it is easier for China to handle Trump, who just wants to cut a deal, than Biden, who has a values-based approach to governing.
“Biden’s toughness is something few Chinese understand,” Shi said. “He is an establishment politician. He is a defender of American values. He is engaged in ‘friends-circle diplomacy’ to form a circle of friends that integrates the power of the West to (counter) China. From this point of view, I can bluntly say that Biden is more difficult to deal with.”
Tang reported from Washington. Associated Press researchers Yu Bing and Chen Wanqing in Beijing, and AP writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.