Analysis

Trump’s Credibility With China Plummets

The U.S. president’s casual request for an investigation of the Bidens has Beijing saying no thanks—and largely ignoring his demands as trade talks look headed for a tough run.

G-20 summit dinner
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, along with members of their delegations, hold a dinner meeting at the end of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese leaders have a lot of practice at launching anti-corruption campaigns with the goal of bringing down their domestic adversaries. That’s just one of many ironies surrounding the spectacle of U.S. President Donald Trump publicly asking Beijing to unearth dirt on the family of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. The last thing Chinese officials expected was the leader of the free world welcoming them—Washington’s strategic competitor—to intervene in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. 

Yet that is precisely what Trump did last week, when he told reporters: “China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.” Trump was referring to conspiracy theories about Biden’s son Hunter and his connection to a Chinese investment firm. The remarks came after House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into the U.S. president’s phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart in which Trump also pushed for a probe into the Bidens, allegedly holding military aid and a White House meeting hostage to his demand.

To many Chinese, Trump is behaving in ways that Chinese authorities themselves have been criticized for behaving—lawless, amoral, transactional. In the ultimate irony, Trump appears to be asking of Chinese President Xi Jinping precisely the sorts of things for which Xi has been excoriated—purging rivals in the guise of anti-graft measures and keeping the highly politicized judiciary in thrall to China’s political leadership. The latter issue is why protesters first took to the streets of Hong Kong this past summer, outraged by proposed legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to the mainland for trial in China’s notorious courts. (The legislation was eventually withdrawn for good, but that didn’t stop the protesters.)

Beijing’s state media often argue that Western-style democracy, electoral politics, and freedom of speech are overrated. Even many relatively liberal Chinese intellectuals insist that universal suffrage wouldn’t work in their country because “people who have little education or live in rural areas would just vote for the guy who shares their own surname,” said one Chinese professor, requesting anonymity. Now Trump, by representing in Chinese eyes the pitfalls of democracy, seems almost to have become Exhibit A for that argument.

Already there are signs that the Chinese have started taking Trump less seriously. It’s clear that with his casual remarks about a China investigation, Trump may have been entirely domestically focused, seeking to distract attention from a whistleblower’s Ukraine revelations. (Some of the U.S. president’s Republican defenders have even suggested he was joking.) Officially, Beijing wants no part of it. Around the edges of U.N. General Assembly events in New York, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted, “China will never interfere in the internal affairs of the United States, and we trust that the American people are capable of sorting out their own problems.” 

Even if some Beijing strategists were to see advantages in forging a quiet quid pro quo with Trump over a Biden investigation (and so far there’s no hint of anyone like that), the U.S. president’s volatility argues against such a deal. “The Chinese aren’t interested. He’s not reliable enough to be counted on for that sort of back-office arrangement,” said Evan Medeiros, formerly Barack Obama’s top advisor for the Asia-Pacific region on the National Security Council and now Penner Family chair in Asian studies and Cling Family distinguished fellow at Georgetown University. “For the Chinese, that path is all risk, no reward.” 

The fast-approaching 2020 U.S. presidential election also suggests that U.S. perceptions of the so-called China threat will loom large on the campaign trail—at least if past elections are any gauge. “The Chinese know that Sino-U.S. relations are going to be politicized in the election,” Medeiros said. “Any hint that China is active [behind the scenes] will make things even more politicized—and they hate that.”

There are also signs that Sino-U.S. ties, and the resolution of the ongoing trade war, are suffering collateral damage from Washington’s impeachment fracas and the perception of an unhinged Trump. The Los Angeles Times and other outlets reported this week that Vice Premier Liu He, who will lead the Chinese contingent in a new round of talks beginning Thursday, is no longer willing to discuss broader structural issues such as commitments on reforming Chinese industrial policy or government subsidies, which have been a centerpiece of Trump’s trade demands.

“If it’s true, the Chinese may have seized the moment to narrow down the scope of the [trade] discussions and bring the talks more down to earth,” said Mary Lovely of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

One reason may be that Trump has a growing credibility problem with Beijing. He has declared that his desire to see China launch a probe of the Bidens has nothing to do with the trade negotiations. “But when the Trump administration says, ‘OK, these two are completely separate,’ that’s a signal that they may not be completely separate,” Lovely said. “The Chinese meanwhile are incredibly pragmatic, and they’ll certainly consider the possibility that the impeachment inquiry is having an effect. They’ll see the president as weakened. That will matter.”

At the same time, in the United States every move by Trump’s negotiating team will now be scrutinized with extra intensity. Up to now, Trump has insisted that any deal has to be all-encompassing and “100 percent for us”—which would obviously be hard for China to swallow. Anything less—such an interim deal modeled on the recent U.S.-Japan trade agreement—may seem like a climbdown. “An interim deal will be even more highly scrutinized,” Lovely said. “The knives are out for Trump and getting sharper.” 

The risks were clear in recent remarks made by Trump’s critics. “What did [Trump] promise China in exchange for interfering in our election?” tweeted Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “An easier deal on trade? Ignoring crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? Condoning repression of religious freedom?” (Pelosi’s comment on Hong Kong was especially sharp-edged because Trump had reportedly told Xi in a June 18 phone call that he would hold off from criticizing Beijing in relation to Hong Kong’s unrest while Sino-U.S. trade negotiations were underway.) On the other side of the political divide, one of the few Republicans to speak out against Trump’s request to the Chinese was Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. He told the Omaha World-Herald: “Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.”

Trump’s obsessions with the Bidens’ Beijing connection focus on a 2013 trip the then-vice president made to China, accompanied by his son Hunter. The younger Biden later joined the board of an investment firm whose partners included Chinese entities. Trump has said Hunter Biden walked “out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund. … I think it’s a horrible thing.” Public records do not corroborate Trump’s allegation that Beijing invested $1.5 billion into the fund; Hunter Biden has denied any wrongdoing. 

It is often noted that in the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two pictographs: one standing for “danger” and the second roughly meaning “opportunity.” If the reports that Beijing is using this particular crisis to narrow the scope of the trade talks turn out to be true, and that becomes China’s final negotiating position, Trump will not get what he wants. His China policy will have failed, perhaps before the 2020 election. Ultimately the talks’ progress or lack thereof could see the China factor playing a role in the U.S. election—just not the kind of role Trump was counting on.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.

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