International Policy Digest

World News /22 Oct 2020
10.22.20

A U.S. Election China can’t Lose

Four years ago, they got it wrong. Beijing backed the wife of a former U.S. president and not the bronzed TV personality. This time, they can’t lose.

They like to take the long view in the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai just off Tiananmen Square. Parts of the manicured grounds predate Christopher Columbus landing on various, what we now call, Caribbean islands.

China’s rulers historically have never felt the need to justify their grip on power through electoral cycles. They deal in eras not terms. And there is a feeling in China that we are approaching the end of the U.S. era. It may be misguided, just plain wrong, and certainly, wishful thinking plays a part, but that is the feeling.

Can Washington, after the debacle of the Trump presidency, reassert its commitment to human rights? It may try but it is not certain. Look at how America is viewed in Beijing. Its president endorses the far right. “Stand back and stand by.” His attacks on the free press and his support for QAnon quackery beggar belief and are greeted with ill-concealed glee in Beijing.

On the surface, China had a tough ride in the United States in 2020. But as the days in Beijing grow shorter, and apartment heating will be turned on by the state to offset the winter chill, China believes it has emerged stronger than seemed possible in January.

Sure, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have ratcheted up the anti-China rhetoric. Generally, Asia prefers a Republican president. They feel more in tune with the conservative candidate. Republicans are considered more reliable, especially on defense. But under Trump, the U.S. suffered, at the very least, catastrophic reputational damage. The Trump presidency has made China great again. The Great Disrupter has lived up to his moniker. NATO, for instance, has been dammed by faint praise from Washington. A figure of ridicule lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. No other country has benefited as much from the Trump presidency as China.

Under Biden, the boat of diplomacy will probably ply calmer waters. Trade deals could be done and these, Beijing believes, would generally benefit China more than the U.S. Any deal would offer cheap China production for access to the lucrative U.S. market. Sure, some tariffs to pay here and there, higher taxes on certain products but any trade deal with the U.S. has huge advantages for China.

Biden will take a softer line on tariffs and reach out to Beijing on climate change. As the world heats up China will play a greater role. It is both hero and villain. It has contributed greatly to global warming but has also introduced wind power to its energy mix and is a global leader in the use of green technology.

The West has realized that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ditched Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide your light under a bushel and bide your time.” Xi is a very un-Chinese leader. He endorses expansionism. Is aggressive in tone. The days of closer economic ties for, wait for it, that terrible phrase, “mutual benefit,” of investment into China actually benefiting the West seem as naive as they are dated.

It’s not too late for the West but China has established a commanding lead. Much of Asia, Europe, and South America will at the very minimum consider China’s reaction to any major initiative. That would have been unheard of a decade ago.

The “old” consensus, actually policy until say 18 months ago or so, according to which admitting China into the World Trade Organization and accommodating its rise would help bring about the day when Chinese citizens would cast their ballots at some point in the near future. That mindset is a distant memory, like those pre-COVID days when face masks were considered unusual, even threatening.

China under Xi is making its own rules. Its growing wealth sees it flexing its military muscles.

As for COVID, China wastes no time to tell the world that its one-party system provides the best chance to defeat the virus. This, of course, is tripe. First of all, it came from China. Secondly, many democracies have performed well against the virus. And my own country of Ireland did something, as Britain may soon do, that even China would reject…a national lockdown. But there is no doubt that China is in a stronger position as the year ends than when it began. China, and how do deal with its rise, was meant to be one of the key issues of this campaign. Yet neither candidate seems able to articulate a coherent policy on the subject.