A second Trump term would allow China to cement its grip on the developing world.
After four years of Joe Biden, China’s leaders would likely be relieved to have Donald Trump back in the White House.
Compared with his predecessor, Biden has operated quietly. Trump launched a trade war; slapped tariffs on Chinese imports; and infuriated Beijing by referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese Virus,” blaming the Chinese Communist Party for its spread, and even at times humoring theories that the party may have played a role in its creation.
But Biden has hit China harder than Trump ever did. Armed with a more determined foreign policy, he has inflicted acute damage on the country’s economy and geopolitical ambitions, from which China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has struggled to recover. “A Biden-led U.S., probably from the Chinese perspective, looks like a more formidable challenge,” Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told me.
The most telling example is Biden’s technology policy. In 2022, his administration effectively barred the export to China of advanced semiconductors and the complex equipment required to manufacture them. The controls will likely set back China’s hopes of building a competitive chip industry for years and hamper its progress in other key tech sectors, such as artificial intelligence.
Biden has revitalized the American-led global alliance network that had atrophied under Trump, and has marshaled its power to counter China. The advanced democracies in the Group of Seven have displayed an unusual degree of coordination on Biden’s watch, agreeing in 2023 to a common approach to decrease their reliance on the Chinese economy. Biden has also fostered closer ties with new partners, especially India, to compete with Chinese influence in the developing world. Biden’s success has apparently alarmed a Chinese leadership fearful of becoming encircled and contained by a coalition of American allies.
By comparison, from Beijing’s point of view, haggling with Trump over tariffs or exchanging bombastic rhetoric was a mere nuisance. Trump’s withdrawal from American global leadership encouraged Xi to promote China as a more responsible world power. The chaos of the Trump presidency—the administration’s inept response to the pandemic, the violence of January 6—allowed Chinese propagandists to cast the United States as a superpower in decline. Biden’s diplomatic reengagement has made spreading that narrative harder. In response, Xi has become more hostile to Washington. He has routinely resisted dialogue with the Biden administration and become more determined to upset the U.S.-led world order. He has grown more desperate and isolated as a result. Opposed by most of the world’s major powers, Xi has thrown in his lot with the pariah states Russia and Iran in an attempt to build an anti-American coalition to challenge U.S. primacy.
Even if a second Trump presidency were to retain some aspects of Biden’s China policy—the technology controls, for instance, would almost certainly stay in place—Trump’s return would jeopardize the united front that Biden has forged among the major democracies. His “get tough” policy could fixate on one issue with China—trade, for instance—and waver on others of importance, such as human rights and policy toward Taiwan. By comparison, Biden has consistently pressed Beijing on a range of fronts, even straying beyond Washington’s traditionally ambiguous position on Taiwan to suggest that the United States would defend the island from a Chinese military assault. From Beijing’s standpoint, that makes Trump less threatening than Biden, and much more manageable.
Whoever wins the White House, Xi will pursue his agenda to roll back American power and create a China-centric world order. But he would likely push even harder to promote China as a world leader if Trump were in charge. By weakening U.S. standing abroad and democracy at home, Trump would offer Xi more opportunities than Biden to extend Chinese influence and win hearts and minds within the developing world.
Of course, one can’t assume that Trump would cut and paste his China policy from his first term. A newly reelected President Trump would face a geopolitical environment altered by the war in Ukraine and Xi’s intensified animosity toward the United States. He might change his China policy in light of these new realities. But he won’t change his personality. Trump is just as likely to fawn over Xi and other dictators as he is to stand his ground.
If Xi could vote in November, he would surely cast his ballot for Trump.
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “China Will Get Stronger.”
Source: The Atlantic
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