China Probably Doesn’t Care Who Wins

Beijing often places more importance on structural trends than presidential personalities.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
China's President Xi Jinping
China's President Xi Jinping
China's President Xi Jinping smiles before making a speech in Macau on Dec. 18, 2019. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

One of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign’s frequent lines of attack has been that Joe Biden is “soft on China”—and that Beijing will be happy if the Democratic challenger is elected. Trump’s own Office of the Director of National Intelligence has claimed that China is interfering on Biden’s behalf—although the allegation drew heavy pushback from analysts.

It’s true that Biden has never been a China hawk, and at points he has been downright complacent about the challenges posed by dealing with Beijing, such as his statement in 2019 that China is “not competition for us.” In the 1990s, like most prominent politicians, he was an enthusiastic proponent of engagement and World Trade Organization accession for China, and during the Obama administration he was skeptical of occasional efforts to refocus attention on Beijing.

But above all, Biden is a man of his party, and of the center. And the consensus around China in Washington has shifted a long, long way in the last few years, driven by Beijing’s new aggressiveness and intense anti-Americanism. That’s been reflected in Biden’s own positioning, and that of his advisors. Even dedicated doves are sharpening their beaks. There’s still a real chance that a Biden presidency attempts a partial reset of relations, if only to try to pull out of this year’s spiral—but there’s unlikely to be a return to the complacency of the past. Beijing is simply too big, too nationalistic, and too strong to be, as it was during the Obama years, a third-place priority.

One of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign’s frequent lines of attack has been that Joe Biden is “soft on China”—and that Beijing will be happy if the Democratic challenger is elected. Trump’s own Office of the Director of National Intelligence has claimed that China is interfering on Biden’s behalf—although the allegation drew heavy pushback from analysts.

It’s true that Biden has never been a China hawk, and at points he has been downright complacent about the challenges posed by dealing with Beijing, such as his statement in 2019 that China is “not competition for us.” In the 1990s, like most prominent politicians, he was an enthusiastic proponent of engagement and World Trade Organization accession for China, and during the Obama administration he was skeptical of occasional efforts to refocus attention on Beijing.

But above all, Biden is a man of his party, and of the center. And the consensus around China in Washington has shifted a long, long way in the last few years, driven by Beijing’s new aggressiveness and intense anti-Americanism. That’s been reflected in Biden’s own positioning, and that of his advisors. Even dedicated doves are sharpening their beaks. There’s still a real chance that a Biden presidency attempts a partial reset of relations, if only to try to pull out of this year’s spiral—but there’s unlikely to be a return to the complacency of the past. Beijing is simply too big, too nationalistic, and too strong to be, as it was during the Obama years, a third-place priority.

As for the Chinese leaders themselves, I doubt they have any particularly strong preferences. For one thing, the Marxist analysis of other nations favored by the Communist Party’s leadership still tends to see elections as a sham and places importance on structural trends rather than individual personalities. When there is a strong interest in one side, it’s normally because of existing corrupt ties with a particular leader, such as Beijing’s connections to former authoritarian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia. That same scandal connects to Trumpworld–but Trump’s attitude toward Beijing, while wildly erratic, certainly hasn’t displayed any of the sense of fealty that Beijing’s pet leaders show.

Whoever wins, China seems convinced that the United States is on a path of clear decline. That’s reinforced by the disastrous U.S. COVID-19 numbers of the last few weeks, often hitting over a thousand deaths a day. China’s entire official coronavirus death total is less than 5,000; even guesstimates of concealed numbers end up in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 deaths, a small fraction of the over 230,000 dead in the United States so far.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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