Roar writer Hanna Pham on the turbulent relationships between US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the People’s Republic of China.
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”
These words were spoken by President John F Kennedy in the 1960s, at the beginning of Cold War détente between China and the United States. Fifty years later, the same careful, creeping, and sceptical attitude towards China is still evident in American politics. Following the election of President Trump, relations with China have fluctuated intensely, and while those relations may not be stable, it would be accurate to state that the two nations’ relationship has reached a climax.
A multitude of problems in the 21st century have creased the already strained and tenacious affair, such as trade policies, human rights issues, and more obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic. In the upcoming election, the topic of China will be an important one. Given the current US political climate, both presidential candidates – sitting President Trump and Democrat nominee Joe Biden – must portray themselves as tough against China. Each candidate will stand their ground, and their stances will be grounded in two main areas: trade and human rights. In analysing each candidate’s rhetoric regarding China, it seems as if Trump is more concerned and vocal about trade, whereas Biden’s focus appears to take a more active role in criticising China’s dealings with human rights.
Trump’s relationship with China has always been turbulent. Prior to becoming President, he was known for being a billionaire businessman, and by extension had complicated business ties with China, often verging on illegality. A 2008 negotiation with Chinese group Evergrande to develop property in Beijing failed because building on the intended land was found to be illegal. Trump’s wealth is explicitly intertwined with Chinese money; in fact, his Manhattan office building is partially owned by the Bank of China. That funding is also an issue; as stated by Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, “any payments from foreign governments or banks controlled by foreign governments would fall under the emoluments clause… which makes it illegal for a U.S. president to directly benefit from payments from foreign powers”.
Keeping in mind these businesses transactions all occurred before Trump’s run for the presidency in 2016, his administration has faced – and still is facing – severe conflicts of interest in regard to the precarious balance of business ties and the national interest of the United States from the beginning.
Despite the fact that President Trump has intricate ties with state-owned China business, he has harboured intense hostility against China, channelling insults and disgust into the realm of economic ties and trade. During his campaigns he denounces trade deals with China, accusing them of ruining the lives of American workers, and even going so far as to accuse China of raping the United States. But just as quickly, as the economy improved in January 2020, Trump declared victory against predatory Chinese practices, saying he and Chinese president Xi Jinping love each other – only to go back on this with the next economic downturn. Thus, it seems likely the primary focus of Trump’s criticism in the upcoming election will be what he perceives as China’s detrimental impact on the US
Meanwhile, Biden, as a life-long politician, has also had a complicated relationship with China. As a senator throughout the latter half of the 20th century, he has supported ushering China into a more globalised world via trade and economic ties. However, as time progressed and China came into its own as a global superpower, Biden’s viewpoint became more cynical. Even when declaring that a more prominent China on the world stage is a positive for the world, he has not shied away from condemning China on the subject of human rights. In fact, in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests, Biden lobbied legislation to ensure media networks uphold democratic values in the country, declaring that China ran “a brutal system”.
The more recent genocide against Uyghur Muslims and crackdown on democracy protestors in Hong Kong has Biden promising sanctions and commercial restrictions if elected. In fact, Biden has officially addressed the persecution of Uyghur as genocide, which China has denied and the Trump administration still has yet to denounce officially, albeit having publicly condemned the Chinese government for the sterilization and forced imprisonment of Uyghurs. With this more defensive standpoint, however, Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing, believes Biden to be feeling pressured to act tougher on China. This could ultimately resort to military confrontation – merely creating more conflict and hostility rather than solving the underlying issue.
At the same time, Chinese experts are optimistic that Biden will pursue a more conventional approach to diplomacy in areas such as climate change. In short, while Biden’s views on China have fluctuated throughout his time in public service, as of right now with 2020 election looming, his standpoint regarding China is primarily hawkish.
An important factor for both candidates to consider when stating their views on China is that in the US population, anti-China sentiment is on the rise. Since the beginning of 2020, the number of US voters who perceive China as an “enemy” has risen by 11 points to 31%, while the statistic of those who consider China an ally has dropped 9 points to 23%. As Trump’s presidency progressed, sentiment towards China became increasingly negative, with the onslaught of the Coronavirus exacerbating the already distrustful frame of mind that characterizes how the American public views China.
Both candidates are competing to one-up each other on who can be more critical of China. According to America First Action, a pro-Trump political committee, $10 million has been spent in ads attacking Biden over China, whereas Biden has dropped $2 million in cultivating ads to proliferate Trump’s early comments in the year praising China. Trump is attacking Biden on the basis of his son Hunter’s business engagement with China while Biden was vice president, whereas Biden is honing in on the patents that Ivanka, Trump’s daughter, received from China during his initial run for president in 2016.
However, Trump has been criticised by Asian-Americans for including “racial overtones” in his attack ads against China, causing Biden to make the distinction of attacking the Chinese government and not the people. This may not play into Biden’s favour as he attempts to be wary of how ads attacking China will play out in the Asian-American diaspora. Intricacies of attacks on China aside, in terms of who the American public currently trusts more in handling China, Biden and Trump are neck and neck – 40% trusted Biden more regarding the issue, whereas 38% favoured Trump.
While the American attitude towards China has fluctuated throughout the years, in the current political climate it is no longer the norm for politicians in Washington to voice their support for China’s continued integration onto the world stage. In light of the Coronavirus pandemic originating in China, the continuation of the Uyghur labour camp incarcerations, and China’s ever-growing economic prowess on the global stage, the future of relations between the US and China is at the forefront of concerns voters will have to take to heart as they head to the polls in November. Ultimately, both candidates will need to prove themselves capable of standing their ground in light of the giant who is shaking the world.
Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.