Best of enemies: Presidents Trump and Xi (Getty)
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Anti-China syndrome

Both US parties are seeking to be tough on Beijing — but at what cost?

Had a coronavirus not jumped from bat to human in Wuhan in late 2019 and spread around the world in early 2020, then the three words heard by US voters ad nauseam this summer would have been “Keep America Great” — a Trumpian variation on the usual incumbent pitch for re-election that plays up a healthy economy and the fulfilment of promises made four years ago.

But Donald Trump, like the rest of us, has had his plans for 2020 upended by Covid-19. The sunny economic outlook on which so much of his re-election bid rested suddenly looks a lot gloomier. Rather than touting the “greatest economy in history” at the rallies which helped him win in 2016 and have sustained him in office ever since, he is stuck in the White House trying to manage a public health crisis and an economic catastrophe that have flipped the electoral script entirely. At the time of writing, America’s death toll is approaching 100,000. In April alone, 20 million Americans lost their jobs. No wonder “Keep America Great” has lost its lustre.

The campaign against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden will now have to follow a very different script. Paradoxically, even as Covid-19 has undermined Trump’s re-election plans, and probably made a second term less likely, it has also made the world look a lot more, well, Trumpy. So much so that the pandemic sometimes feels like an ur-Trumpian cautionary tale: a deadly virus that the Chinese Communist Party lied about and failed to contain before it spread across the world, exposing the regime’s irredeemable deviousness, the fragility of the global economy and the inadequacy and corruptibility of international organisations like the World Health Organisation.

Trump’s hawkish  stance on China is both electorally popular and genuine

It is no coincidence that some of Trump’s earliest and most enthusiastic advisers, like the former White House Chief of Staff Steve Bannon and current trade adviser Peter Navarro, took the coronavirus more seriously than most early on.

China was the central villain in Trump’s 2016 campaign. In his telling, its rise, facilitated by a complicit political elite, led to the “American Carnage” that was the theme of his inauguration address. And so, for all the economic indicators that bode ill for the president, the optimists in Team Trump are confident that the 2016 playbook can be dusted down and put to use in 2020.

This approach was on display in a barrage of Trump campaign advertisements filling television screens and Facebook feeds. On the attack, the Trump campaign is attempting to paint the presumptive Democratic nominee as “Beijing Biden”. One clip shows Biden clinking champagne flutes with Xi Jinping. Another captures Biden claiming that “it is in our self-interest for China to continue to prosper”. Another accuses Biden of being “China’s puppet” and claims his son Hunter “received over $1 billion from a Chinese government state-owned bank.”

Though there is no evidence that Biden’s son “received $1 billion”, he has done business in China, sat on the board of a company backed by businesses underwritten by the Chinese state and accompanied his father on an official visit to the Middle Kingdom in 2013 — a trip about which the Trump campaign will doubtless ensure Americans hear more.

Videos produced by the Biden campaign and pro-Biden PACs paint an uncannily similar picture, only with the roles reversed. This time it is Trump who is soft on China, with insinuations of corruption. In one clip from the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge, the narrator intones gravely that “everyone knew they lied about the virus” before showing Trump praising Xi’s handling of the pandemic in February, then scolding the president for sending masks and medical supplies to China when they were needed in America. Other pro-Biden advertisements sling the same kind of conspiratorial mud aimed at Biden fils in the opposite direction, pointing to financial ties between China and the Trump family and members of the Trump administration.

The president’s embrace of an increasingly hawkish stance on China has the advantage of being both electorally popular and genuine. Behind the reorientation of the 2020 campaign is a significant hardening of public attitudes towards America’s most powerful strategic rival. The number of Americans with a negative view of China has been ticking up steadily since Trump entered the White House in 2017. Then, Pew found 47 per cent of Americans with an unfavourable view and 44 per cent with a favourable view. Today that gap is significantly wider, with 66 per cent holding an unfavourable opinion and 26 per cent with a favourable view. While Republicans are on the whole more anti-China than independents and Democrats, a majority in each group has a negative opinion of China, and views have soured to the worst ratings on record among supporters of both parties.

According to polling by FTI Consulting, 40 per cent of Americans now say they will not buy products from China and 78 per cent agreed that they would be willing to pay more for products if the company that made them moved manufacturing out of China. In other words, Americans are closer to Trump on China than they were four years ago. That said, an electoral emphasis on a new Cold War is not without its risks.

Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of The Rise of China vs The Logic of Strategy, warns that escalating tensions with China could undermine an economic upswing that the Trump camp are praying is well under way before November. “Trump’s re-election would obviously be favoured by a vigorous recovery,” he says. But a trade confrontation as punishment for the pandemic “could involve Chinese actions, or US actions for that matter, that could slow down the recovery. Tit-for-tat trade retaliation would impact the election by slowing down the recovery.”

But Luttwak thinks the geopolitical backdrop to the election ultimately suits Trump. A loud quarrel with China “underlines the lie that Trump’s foreign policy is motivated only by enriching billionaires and building hotels in Moscow. You see him fight with China and you can’t relate that to any billionaire interests. It raises the possibility that Trump has a geopolitical motivation.”

For Biden, the picture is more complicated. Talking tough on China might help neutralise the “Beijing Biden” line of attack. But the counterclaim that Trump has been anything other than highly sceptical of China’s economic and geopolitical rise doesn’t stack up. Above all, there are more advantageous things to talk about, like the Trump administration’s erratic handling of America’s coronavirus outbreak.

The more the conversation is centred on China, the less scrutiny Trump faces. Navarro has characterised the crisis as “China lied, people died”. Trump will hope Americans agree. Biden’s job is to insert the president into that story.

For all that China dominates the agenda at the moment, will it actually be a determinative issue on polling day?

“Conventional wisdom is that people don’t vote on foreign policy, except maybe in a war, and I think that’s true,” says Luke Thompson, a Republican political strategist. “But China is a domestic issue in this election. It’s your livelihood, your bread and butter, your plans, your 401k [pension plan], all of it down the drain thanks to China.”

According to Thompson, the prize for whichever candidate manages to “own” the China issue could be considerable: “There will be a very deep appetite for making China pay, in some way shape or form,” he says, “and if one candidate can make a credible claim to be willing to do that, at the expense of the other, then that candidate will stand a very good chance of winning.”

Luttwak, by contrast, fails to see how a meaningful gap can open up between the candidates on the issue. “Biden can only echo Trump in his hostility to China,” he says. “So there is no room for debate. No room at all. China only impacts on the election indirectly.”

America really could be on the brink of a new Cold War, a conflict that will change world history and, less importantly, US politics. Paradoxically, this year’s election probably comes too soon after the disaster that triggered that confrontation to be defined by that clash. In November, Americans will either be picking up the pieces after the Covid-19 crisis, or bracing for a second wave of infections. Their priorities will be close to home; their political concerns urgent. For all the anger felt towards China, trying to frame his opponent as Beijing Biden will only get Trump so far.

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