[SCMP] Wang Wen: White House race tests US-China ties, but Beijing won’t use ‘two sessions’ to air opinions on the election


Your Present Location: LATEST INSIGHTS

[SCMP] Wang Wen: White House race tests US-China ties, but Beijing won’t use ‘two sessions’ to air opinions on the election


Source: SCMP Published: 2024-03-02

During last year’s “two sessions”, China’s annual legislative meetings, President Xi Jinping took a direct swipe at Washington, criticising what he called a US-led campaign of “encirclement and suppression”.

It was a highly unusual example of a Chinese leader singling out the United States but pointed to the parlous state of relations between the two countries so soon after a Chinese air balloon was shot down over US territory.

A year later, the incident has passed and China and the United States have taken more conciliatory positions but the two powers remain locked in a geopolitical rivalry that will be tested by this year’s race for the White House.

When China’s political elites gather for the two sessions next week, many will be watching to see how Beijing views the US presidential election and the future of bilateral ties.

But as the chances of a rematch between US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump grow, observers say China is likely to take a cautious and neutral stance on the election during the gatherings of its legislature and top political advisory body.

There is a pervasive view in China that neither candidate would be a relief for Beijing or change the direction of Sino-American ties as both Biden and Trump share the same strategic stance on China, differing only in their tactics.

The annual meetings of China’s National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, while mainly focused on domestic matters, also serve as a platform for Beijing to broadcast its position on foreign policy issues.

Pang Zhongying, a chair professor of international political economy at Sichuan University, said Chinese authorities were likely to sidestep questions about their opinions of the two US presidential candidates during the two sessions.

He added that the US presidential election posed a “dilemma” for Beijing, as it was “very risky” to bet on Biden’s re-election given Trump’s strong momentum, but it was also hard to expect favourable results from a Trump victory given his tough stand on China.

“It’s a really tough one to deal with,” he said.

According to He Jun, a senior researcher with the Beijing-based independent think tank Anbound, the election’s outcome might not make a difference in the fundamental factors affecting China-US relations.

“The basic situation of China-US relations in an intense geopolitical game will not change, nor will the US change its position of viewing China as a long-term strategic competitor,” he said.

The tensions between Beijing and Washington are widely seen to have begun with the trade war launched six years ago by the Trump administration.

Trump labelled China a strategic “competitor” in 2017. Biden later echoed this, framing Beijing as a “pacing threat” and Washington’s only competitor with “both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it”.

The Biden administration also left Trump-era tariffs in place on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese products while rallying US allies to reinforce technology controls against Beijing and build up a military presence on China’s doorstep in the Indo-Pacific.

Sun Chenghao, head of the US-EU programme at Tsinghua University’s Centre for International Security and Strategy, said Biden, if reelected, was likely to continue to refine his systemic framework for competition with China.

At a seminar at Tsinghua in January, Sun said US-EU relations were in a “honeymoon” period, which could be extended for at least another four years if Biden were to win. In that situation, Washington and Brussels would most likely focus their foreign policy cooperation on dealing with China, he added.

However, if Trump recaptured the White House, he said, Republicans were likely to play up China as a threat while pushing for domestic investment and creating more barriers in technology. Sun added that communication channels between Beijing and Washington might also become unstable with a second Trump presidency.

Sun added that Trump might remain interested in some bilateral cooperation channels established under Biden, such as the one on fentanyl.

“I think it depends on specific areas and issues, we can’t say that all the mechanisms will be gone once the Republican Party comes into power,” he said in an interview with the Post.

Lu Xiang, an expert on US-China relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also said Chinese officials were unlikely to comment on the US election during the two sessions.

“China has always been firmly committed to non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, including those of the US,” he said.

He said Beijing might reaffirm its long-standing stance on the bilateral relationship.

“The Chinese side will resolutely express its hope and efforts for building a constructive and stable China-US relationship,” he said.

Exchanges between US and Chinese senior officials have increased in recent months. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi held talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month and met White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan in January.

Building on the consensus reached between Xi and Biden during their November summit in San Francisco, the US and China have launched working groups focused on the climate and narcotics, and the two sides resumed high-level military talks in December after a hiatus of more than a year.

But the countries remain at odds on a spectrum of issues, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to the war in Ukraine to trade and technology.

Lu from CASS said there seemed to be little chance that the recent communication between Beijing and Washington would deliver any results, saying the Biden administration was distracted by issues such as the election, immigration, inflation, Ukraine and the Middle East.

He said he expected Chinese authorities would focus on “scenario management” to prepare for different developments in the US election.

“I believe there are a number of tool kits sitting there,” Lu said.

Zhu Feng, executive dean of the school of international studies at Nanjing University, said China was still in “wait-and-see” mode regarding the election.

During the two sessions, China was likely to continue its posture of actively managing bilateral relations, improving cooperation and deepening pragmatic exchanges, he said.

He added that Beijing would probably emphasise its “uncompromising” stance on Taiwan.

Beijing sees the island as part of China to be reunited by force if necessary. Most countries, including the US, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

Zhu said China’s overall policy framework towards US relations – including seeking more cooperation and defending its interests and principles – had already fundamentally taken shape.

“The basic policy elements will be further reiterated and developed during the two sessions with no substantial changes,” he said.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now in its third year and conflicts in the Middle East continuing to escalate, Beijing has pitched itself as a reliable actor in global affairs.

Speaking at last month’s Munich Security Conference, which was dominated by the prospect of a US retreat from the international stage under a Trump administration, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would be “a force for stability” no matter how the world changed.

He conveyed the same message in meetings with European leaders on the sidelines of the conference and again during his visits to Spain and France.

Wang Wen, executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, said he expected China to elaborate on this position at the foreign minister’s press conference during the two sessions.

“The world is now in … perhaps the most chaotic and tense phase since World War II,” he added.

He of Anbound noted that the present geopolitical situation was very turbulent and said this year’s two sessions might reflect more on that context than in previous years.

“China is expected to continue to express its stance of peace and stability to the world, articulating its principles.”