Why Xi Jinping May Be Hoping for Trump's Re-Election
With President Donald Trump casting China as America’s biggest adversary, one might assume that President Xi Jinping is hoping the mercurial US leader will lose next week's presidential election. In fact, the opposite may be true.
The Chinese leadership has navigated the Trump years with limited damage, having negotiated a trade deal with the United States that included few of Mr. Trump’s initial demands. Meanwhile, China has grown more aggressive in its foreign relations and more repressive at home, and appears to be the world's first major economy to be emerging from the pandemic recession.
Of course, Mr. Trump could inflict more serious harm on China if he is re-elected. Among other things, he seems determined to bring down Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and to restrict the flow of advanced technologies to China. But the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has also promised a hard line on China, calling President Xi a “thug” and vowing to impose sanctions against Chinese firms that steal US technology. The two candidates, in short, have similar positions.
Nevertheless, Beijing should fear a Biden presidency more than a Trump second term—for three reasons.
First, Mr. Trump is easily manipulated. His admiration of strongman leaders is a trump card for President Xi and for other dictators from Vladimir Putin to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Smart adversaries have played upon Mr. Trump's vanity and his apparent fear of seeming "weak" by flattering the US president and offering him largely symbolic victories, such as the US-China “phase one” trade deal.
Second, after initially threatening “fire and fury” against China’s only ally, North Korea, Mr. Trump’s attention drifted elsewhere, even though the North Korean regime has continued to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reportedly reach all points in the continental United States. According to his former national security advisor, John Bolton, Mr. Trump approached his historic first face-to-face meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, “prepared to sign a substance-free communique, have his press conference to declare victory and then get out of town.” Indeed, President Trump now suggests that his “very good relationship” with Mr. Kim has eliminated the North Korean nuclear threat against the United States. China has surely taken note that Mr. Biden does not share this view.
Third, and most importantly, President Trump has failed to mobilize a coalition of like-minded countries to push back against China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour. Seemingly unaware of the potential value of allies for US foreign policy, he has regularly insulted, threatened and sanctioned America’s closest friends, even describing Germany as a “foe.”
Joe Biden, by contrast, has made working with allies a centrepiece of his planned approach to China: “We need to be having the rest of our friends with us.” The conditions for pulling together a new group seem to be emerging, thanks partly to China’s own brutal tactics, including the arbitrary detention of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The transformation of attitudes towards China in many democratic countries over the last two years has been remarkable. Concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s goals and methods have grown, along with an appetite for a more coordinated response from countries that share these concerns. However, many of America’s allies do not trust President Trump, and his approach to China has fluctuated between obsequiousness and belligerence.
Enter Joe Biden, who has promised to repair relations with US allies, rejoin the Paris climate accord and recommit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It’s enough to make America’s democratic partners giddy at the prospect of a Biden presidency. If he does win, he will likely ask the same countries to work with the US on a common response to China’s threats and bullying. Although these allies have differing views on how to approach China—some are justifiably concerned about the risk of a new Cold War—a skillful US president should be able to cobble together a working coalition.
President Xi should fear this coalition more than Trump’s impetuousness, which has divided, not united, the democratic world.