Two things are clear about the alarming plummet in US relations with China: First, President Donald Trump and his team are deliberately stoking the flames, in a bid to revive his reelection campaign. Second, tensions between the world’s most powerful nation and its rising rival may not be much better if Joe Biden is the next president.
America’s long policy of trying to shape China into a nation that plays by the rules of the global system and eventually democratizes since 1990s. Twenty-first century China under President Xi Jinping sees itself on a historic mission to prove that its system of centralized, authoritarian control twinned with a powerhouse economy can best the Western order.
After toadying to Xi for the sake of the US-China trade deal, Trump now appears to be getting tough: He recently closed China’s consulate in Houston, accuses it of operating a vast spying network on US soil and has made Beijing a scapegoat for his own coronavirus missteps. And people in Biden’s foreign policy orbit appear to agree with the current administration’s hardline secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that the engagement principle that long underlined US-China relations has not delivered. The former vice president’s campaign website promises to target “countries like China” in its plan to revive US-based supply chains and boost American industry.
A Biden presidency might be more successful than Trump’s in enlisting allies in Europe and Asia as a counterbalance to Chinese power. But Democrats hope to erase memories of Biden trying to carve out a mentor role with the up-and-coming Xi years ago, and his Senate vote to admit China into the WTO — the step that supercharged its economic rise.
Whoever wins in November, the politics point to a president who will be tough on China.