The last four years has been one of the most tumultuous periods in modern China-US relations. US President Donald Trump has been the critical catalyst of this upheaval as he has oscillated between presenting China as a valued partner in international affairs, to it being a pariah that needs to be evermore constrained. Such fluctuations have mounted in intensity as the Trump Presidency has progressed. They have left observers uncertain as to whether or not this is a purposeful strategy of the leader of the world’s most power country, or an indication of an untethered, badly conceived and even short-sighted policy.
Such a wild approach has been no clearer than in their economic relationship. Here, the US has strived to re-balance its trade relations with China, in particular to reduce Beijing’s long-standing trade surplus with Washington. The surplus has been argued by US elites to have led to an unequal relationship, which a rising China exploits to challenge the US’s economic supremacy. This divide has increasingly taken on a symbolic quality with it becoming representative of a rising China that is soon to surmount the US in global affairs, and which US elites now regard as the most pressing strategic threat to its global position.
In an attempt to pressure China into some kind of re-alignment, the US President initiated a trade war in 2018 and ratcheted up tariffs on Chinese imports to the American market. By early 2020, these amounted to over $400 billion in tariffs, with China imposing its own retaliatory tariffs of $138 billion on its US imports. Such steps have taken place amidst ongoing trade talks between the two sides and have been viewed as a negotiating tactic that has ultimately been detrimental to both countries’ economies. In late 2020, the WTO said that US tariffs violated international trade rules, undercutting their legitimacy, as well as US claims that China is undermining the US-led “rules based” international order.
Elsewhere, the two sides have also come into friction concerning China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, with the US carrying out regular freedom of navigation operations in the area. The US now also sends warships and military aircraft through the Taiwan Straits on a monthly basis (something innovated under President Trump), so as to deter China’s historical claims on the island. In turn, Washington has urged its allies – Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom – to act similarly, which has raised concerns in China of the country being strategically constrained in the region. Such a constraint could prevent Beijing from pursuing its foreign policy goal of claiming hegemony in East Asia.
Concerning the coronavirus pandemic, narratives emanating from the US along with its western allies have targeted China as being culpable for the outbreak. In a recent speech at the United Nations, President Trump openly claimed that China had knowingly unleased the Covid-19 “plague” on the world, which prompted a terse response from Beijing’s officials that it is a cooperative not confrontational country that firmly has “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country”.
Such criticism has been increasingly mainstreamed in the last few months in the West with it acting as a stimulus for discussions on how to deal with China’s rise. More critically, an October 2020 Pew survey showed that unfavourable opinions about China were at their highest ever level across the populations of Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and South Korea.
All of these aspects of US-China relations will present particular challenges regardless of the outcome of the US election, in particular concerning growing global concerns over China’s international ambitions. In this regard, Beijing will certainly need to re-double its diplomatic efforts to present the country as a responsible and benign international actor, through which others can benefit – in primarily – economic terms. That, by most accounts, China has the coronavirus largely under control means that it has been able to restart its economic activity, which gives Beijing the ability to kickstart and lead an international recovery. That most western countries are still overwhelmed by the pandemic reinforces this capability and gives China the further chance to gain greater leverage and influence.
It also appears that it is now the US that faces the greatest challenges to its international legitimacy, the consequences of which may have profound implications for its own global standing. This relates to the US President’s handling of the pandemic, which has to date led to its world-leading status of 210,000 deaths (which is set to double by the end of the year) and over 7.5 million infections. That the US President himself has now become infected points to a leader but also a wider political system around him (including senior military leaders, senators and most of his election campaign staff) that had a nonchalant, underprepared and irresponsible attitude to the major global health challenge of our time.
President Trump’s infection also marks a major national security threat for the US and the world. Crucially here, it has been widely reported that Trump will be unwilling to accept any negative outcome in the forthcoming election. Apart from suggesting that he would not leave office, he may try to rally supporters – potentially even violently – to protect his position.
With widely circulated claims among Republicans and Trump supporters that the election is rigged, if the Democrats were to win we can expect lengthy legal battles as well as a heightened potential for major civil unrest across the US. Either of these outcomes would consume the US’s domestic and international capabilities to act beyond its borders. They would also signal a sense of the US political system (and democracy) as being illegitimate.
Such crises will only be to Beijing’s advantage (among other US competitors), especially given that China is in many ways returning – if not returned to – its pre-coronavirus economic activity. If US-China relations do signify a contest for supremacy between the world’s two foremost countries, Washington’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact upon the US Presidential election could very well indicate the US’s decline on the international stage, and essentially speed up China’s path to global pre-eminence.