Trans-Pacific View | Politics

China in US Presidential Elections: 2020 Outlook

Insights from James Green.

Mercy A. Kuo
China in US Presidential Elections: 2020 Outlook
Credit: Flickr/ Shealah Craighead

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with James Green host of Georgetown University’s U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast, senior advisor at McLarty Associates, and former Minister Counselor for Trade Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (2013-2018) is the 218th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

How might the 2020 U.S. presidential elections factor into Beijing’s calculus in trade negotiations with Washington?

Since the 1996 election when rumors swirled around improper campaign donations from ethic Chinese businessmen, the Chinese leadership has been aware of how sensitive and potentially toxic interference, or even the perception of interference, in U.S. elections can be. For that reason  — as well as the well-publicized judgment from the U.S. Intelligence Community about Russian meddling in the 2016 election  — the Chinese leadership has acted with extreme caution when considering how a trade agreement with the U.S. will be perceived in the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign. The Chinese leadership has walked a fine line between wanting to conclude a trade agreement with the Trump administration to preserve relations with the U.S. and not wanting to appear intransigent, which could boost prospects for the Democratic nominee. In reaching a “Phase One” agreement in mid-December rolling back some tariffs in exchange for promises of U.S. agricultural purchases, the Chinese government wisely avoided a showy signing ceremony with Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.

What message should Democratic presidential candidates articulate on the future of U.S.-China relations under a Democratic presidency?

During the last few Democratic debates there has been at least one question about how to handle China, often including a question about the use of tariffs underpinning the Trump administration’s approach. The responses from the leading candidates have generally focused on a defensive U.S. agenda: protecting against lack of Chinese intellectual property enforcement or Chinese technological prowess as well as articulating support for protesters in Hong Kong and ethnic Uyghur Muslims. In terms of building a positive agenda, a few candidates have noted the need to work with China to tackle climate change. All of the candidates have been critical of President Trump’s broader conduct of foreign policy: abandoning U.S. global leadership, neglecting allies, embracing authoritarian regimes  ̶ logically, then, all have highlighted the need for strategic planning and consistency with foreign countries in a future Democratic administration. This return to a more traditional approach to diplomacy would clearly include interactions with Beijing.

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What Republican messaging on U.S.-China relations would resonante with conservative constituencies in 2020?

President Trump has so altered the Republican Party and conservative politics over the last three years  ̶  walking away from decades of orthodoxy promoting free trade, limiting budget deficits, embracing treaty allies overseas  ̶  that those party and political labels are currently bereft of meaning. Trumpian messaging on U.S.-China relations would likely emphasize being “tough” on trade to protect domestic manufacturing, a strong working relationship at the president-to-president level, and continued scrutiny on cross-border technology and investment. Congressional Republicans like Marco Rubio of Florida will set part of the bilateral agenda with an emphasis on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, human rights, and capital markets.

Identify the top three challenges in U.S.-China relations looming in 2020.

U.S.-China relations are moving into an era of simultaneous competition, conflict, and perhaps, cooperation. That trend will continue regardless of who wins the 2020 presidential election. The three areas of most pressing need for U.S.-China relations in 2020 are ideology, tariffs, and climate. First, since 2017 the Communist Party has explicitly offered the Chinese “model” for other countries to emulate. Many in Washington, D.C. today see this as an ideological challenge to the United States  ̶  a single-party, mercantilist state using technology to monitor citizens and curtail rights: authoritarian techno-capitalism vs. liberal democracy. Second, addressing tariffs and technology restrictions both ways will be the focus of governments in Beijing and Washington. Third, as the earth continues to warm and severe weather accelerates, the lack of a U.S.-China agreement on next steps will be felt in every corner of the globe.

How might U.S. trade policy change under a Democratic White House and a second-term Republican presidency?

Both parties are struggling with how to address globalization, free trade, and automation. The Trump administration’s use of Section 301 tariffs on Chinese goods and imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum from U.S. allies  ̶  ostensibly for national security reasons  ̶  has offered one, unilateral, approach. The Democrats, traditionally the party of organized labor that has opposed many trade agreements as harming U.S. workers, have yet to come to a new approach to trade. It is worth watching what the Democratic candidates say about the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a possible return to regular trading rules under a new administration. And, despite the serious disruption that President Trump has introduced in U.S. trade policy, both parties in Congress have recently endorsed the renegotiated NAFTA (officially U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) indicating that some aspects of U.S. trade policy will remain beyond 2020 and that the two political parties can cooperate on trade when it is deemed in the national interest.