With less than 33 days to go, the 2020 US presidential campaign is heating up. In one of the most divisive election campaigns in recent American history, incumbent President Donald Trump and Democrat aspirant Joe Biden only appear to agree on one issue, that China is a threat.
Democrat Presidential nominee Joe Biden's China policy may not contradict markedly from that of President Donald Trump. Most international relations experts are on the same page that Biden will not set a reset button as little faith exists toward Beijing and both sides acknowledge the reality of ongoing disputes on many fronts between the world's two largest economies.
In the span of a few years, relations between Beijing and DC have worsened steeply. Accusations about the dissemination of Covid-19, the complicated problems related to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, the US restrictions placed on Huawei and ZTE, economic rivalry, the trade tension, and diplomatic confrontations: these are the salient themes of a messy relationship that has kept awake – and continues to do so – the international community.
Last month, during a Republican National Convention, news spread that White House officials were considering whether to tag China's treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups as a "genocide" or not. The Biden campaign made a swift response to that. "Not only do we agree, Joe Biden already said it first," a campaign spokesperson shot back.
The presidential election campaigns have been especially thorny and divisive in the face of soaring novel coronavirus casualties and racial justice issues. But in a rare display of solidarity, both teams seem to see Xi Jinping's China as a high-priority foreign policy issue and are using it to rip one another off for not being "strong enough" against the communist country.
Claiming that the other party's election victory would also be a big win for Beijing, both parties have depicted China as a major foreign policy threat to the US. Trump has established himself as the only American President who stood up to predatory China. In a recent speech, he touted his undertakings as "the toughest, boldest, strongest, and hardest-hitting action against China in American history by far."
Comparing his actions with Biden's record - his senate vote allowing China's entry to the World Trade Organisation - Trump attempted to substantiate his claims. "China would own our country if Joe Biden got elected," Trump said in the Republican national convention.
Donald Trump Jnr's frequent use of the term "Beijing Biden" in the convention pushed the same message. Political commentators find a similarity between disparaging "Beijing Biden" and "China virus" and argue that such derogatory remarks ignite racial and ethnic sentiment.
"From his first day in office, President Trump's policies have strengthened China's hand and weakened America's by denigrating our alliances, pulling back from the world, abandoning our values, and tarnishing our democracy," said Biden back in August.
Biden charges Trump for "talking tough" but not doing anything real, saying that Trump's policies are hurting American business all over the world. Under Trump's authority, America has relinquished its global leadership role, his "trade war" has benefited China - these are some of the points on which centres the Biden campaign's attack on him.
Biden feels pressure to differentiate his policies from Trump's undertakings as the election is approaching. American attitude toward Beijing is more bitter than ever before. Nonetheless, trade ties between the world's largest economies are inextricable. If he wins, no overhaul will follow but some tactical changes are anticipated.
In early August, a campaign aide of Biden hurried to clarify a "misinterpretation" when Biden supposedly commented on removing tariffs on Chinese goods in an interview with a radio. The aide emphasised that Biden would "re-evaluate the tariffs upon taking office", but the rush to deny the idea that he is weak or has a soft spot for China encapsulates his challenges running against Trump.
Biden may take a traditional diplomatic strategy, but the rivalry between the two countries is expected to sustain. The Democrat's win would be perceived as a return to normality after the Trump era.
However, it is to be seen what will happen to US-China relations. Beijing has already become one of the focal external areas where both contenders aim to gain advantage by manipulating and touting the perceived shortcomings of their rival. It is also labelled as the topmost threat to US interests.
In the US, public attitudes toward China have seen a sea change. There is now a bipartisan understanding against Beijing. And no matter who triumphs on November 3, US-China relations are not going back to that of the 1990s, when there was a belief that if the US and China work closely and create a deep economic tie, China would eventually open up its economy.
A survey from Pew Research Centre issued in July shows that a record number of 73% of American voters gave an unfavourable opinion on China. But surprisingly, 79% of Americans would welcome a positive trading relationship with China, a Gallup poll conducted in February found.
Biden is in a dilemma. He feels the pressure to differentiate his policies from Trump's, and on the other hand, he just cannot ignore the anti-China view of the US citizens. He might be talking tough – as Obama, Bush, and Clinton did earlier in their campaigns but eventually they all undertook pragmatic policies – and might retreat from the direct confrontational path.
He also has to fill the political vacuum left by the Trump administration, to regain Washington's credibility as a global leader. In order to do so, he might take a more cautious route.
But he and his associates cannot not take a drastic departure from current China policy as a bipartisan consensus is crystallising amongst Democrats and Republicans.
Sabyasachi Karmaker is a final-year student of international relations at the University of Dhaka and Associate Editor of Youth Policy Forum. He can be reached at [email protected]