Wendy Cutler, a former acting deputy at the Office of the US Trade Representative, focusing on Asia says, “Regardless of who wins the US presidential election, we should expect to see increasing US-China tensions across a broad range of economic, political, geo-strategic, human rights and people-to-people issues for the years to come.”
In response to Beijing imposing a controversial national security law in Hong Kong, the Trump administration placed sanctions on officials connected to the crackdown, downgraded the city’s special customs status and warned financial institutions against conducting “significant” transactions with anyone deemed to have undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy.
In Taiwan the US has sent high-level government visitors, drawing recrimination from Beijing, increased military exercises in the region and launched a new economic dialogue with Taipei. There have been calls for the US to end its policy of “strategic ambiguity”, a way of discouraging both Beijing and Taipei from making a military move by refusing to say if the US would come to Taiwan’s aid.
“The mutual distrust has never been higher,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think many in China think the US has basically abandoned its one-China policy,” she said, referring to Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of China.
Biden has pledged to work with allies to pressure China through the multilateral organisations that Trump has eschewed. Analysts expect the Democratic candidate if elected, to work with China on issues such as climate change and response to the pandemic.
In contrast, Trump is expected to continue a more confrontational, unilateral strategy that is likely to raise tensions. While Trump’s approach is likely to place more immediate pressure on China, Biden’s is seen by others as more predictable and comprehensive.
Last year Trump described pro-democracy protests as “riots”. According to his former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump told Xi to “go ahead building the camps” in Xinjiang, describing the mass internment campaign as “exactly the right thing to do.”
Some optimists in China believe another four years of Trump would give both countries time to negotiate a trade deal. Still, others believe there is potential for ties to dramatically worsen. “The current situation couldn’t be any worse. If it does get worse, military conflict is near,” said Cheng.
In China, state media have portrayed the pandemic in the US, Black Lives Matter protests and the chaos of the first presidential debate as yet more examples of the failing American democratic experiment.
“While China is worried about Trump’s aggressiveness over the short-term, it also believes that over the long-term he is accelerating American decline,” said Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative.