What election outcome would Beijing prefer? Another four years of Donald Trump – or a fresh start with a Biden administration? The question is trickier than it seems.
Watching the developments of the last few months from the confinements of my bedroom office, I might at first have been inclined to answer “Trump”. After all, over the past four years China has benefitted from the global distraction the Trump administration has been; from a weakening of the transatlantic alliance; and from the United States’ shrinking claim to be leader of the free world. And China has turned this into concrete gains, by incrementally enhancing its strategic position in its own region and solidifying Communist Party control domestically with assertive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This was all while the US proved seemingly unable to bring covid-19 under control while life had already returned to the restaurants and theatres of Beijing. On the other hand, the great power rivalry that has become increasingly pronounced between Beijing and Washington over the past four years is also exerting massive pressure on China’s economy to become more independent of global supply chains and US technology – which is a costly and risky endeavour.
In the past it was often assumed that the Chinese Communist Party preferred Republican presidents, who were said to be less focused on human rights and more on doing business. But Donald Trump is obviously not a classic Republican. He is certainly not a champion of calling out Chinese human rights violations. But for a party that is in favour of totalitarian control, five-year plans, and even longer-term strategies, Trump’s impulses are a nightmare of unpredictability and uncertainty. This is expected to be different with a President Biden: more procedure, more classic diplomacy, more opportunities for Beijing to assess the situation against the background of past experiences.
In the end, the Communist leadership is likely highly pragmatic about who is in the White House. In light of the developments of recent years and the great degree of bipartisan agreement on China policy in the US Congress, sudden shifts in policy are not on the cards. The relationship is expected to remain at a low point for some time to come. But from Beijing’s perspective, factors outside the narrow dynamics of the bilateral relationship begin to acquire greater importance.
This includes the role that Europe plays in the changing global order. Being able to continue to deal with the US and Europe separately, improves China’s negotiating position. The one thing that would therefore have immediately massively changed the parameters for Beijing would have been a landslide Biden victory, which would have provided him with an instantaneous and uncontested mandate to perform a U-turn on the current transatlantic trajectory. This would have had an enormous impact on momentum in the relations with Europe, especially in Germany. Close EU-US coordination on the entire range of China-related policies – from technology, to climate, trade, and human rights – is not in Xi Jinping’s interest. So far various EU member states have resisted the Trump administration’s call for European allegiance on a more confrontational US approach to China. They felt arm-twisted and used the disdain for Trump’s approach to the alliance relationship as an excuse for ambiguity with regard to China. But it would be much harder for key European countries eager to patch things up with their most important security partner to hesitate in joining a transatlantic “united front” if kindly asked by a Biden administration riding on a blue wave of change.
But there is no blue wave of clarity. Instead there is the likelihood of a contested election, with a president that calls an early victory before the votes are counted, cities boarded up for potential riots to come, and courts ready to hand down their judgments. It serves as a useful illustration of Beijing’s far-from-subtle claim that Western democracy has fallen from its moral high ground, is incapable of dealing with the problems of the day – including a raging pandemic – and may be history rather sooner than later.
The small margin of victory certainly leaves much of the next administration’s focus on the home front. It will make it harder to build transatlantic momentum quickly. It will strengthen those calling for greater European sovereignty or open strategic autonomy. And despite China’s assertiveness, and disdain for rules and liberal values, which it puts ever more openly on display, it will also embolden those Europeans who want to maintain cooperative relations with China as a backup plan. To Beijing, this is a gift.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.