Setback for Donald Trump at midterm elections unlikely to affect trade war

  • US president may have lost the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, but influential Democrats have also backed his measures against Beijing
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 7:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 10:26pm

The United States trade war with China may have been the defining narrative of foreign interest in the American midterm elections. But the result, while a setback for President Donald Trump, is unlikely to affect the course of it. Trump’s punitive tariff regime was not a decisive issue of the campaign. Indeed, some influential Democrats have supported it, and backed the confrontational approach with Beijing. Anti-China sentiment can therefore be expected to continue shaping foreign and trade policy debate.

The loss of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is a blow to Trump. The political and policy implications are serious, but they are mainly confined to the US. The best that can be hoped for in relation to the trade war is that domestic political distractions will prompt Trump to clear the political agenda and focus on reaching a deal with China.

Trump’s name was not on the ballot on Tuesday. It was control of Congress that was at stake, but thanks to divisive policies and often racially charged rhetoric that dominated the campaign, the vote was more than anything a referendum on Trump that will determine the future of his presidency. The voters have clipped his wings. He now faces a running war with a Democrat-controlled House armed with the power to issue subpoenas and the numbers to block his legislative agenda. Democrats are in a position to initiate probes into claims of misconduct by the president and his officials. In particular, the House will now be a receptive place for special counsel Robert Mueller to pursue any findings of evidence of illegal conduct during the 2016 presidential election.

US midterms result: good for Democrats, bad for Asia

Perhaps it need not have turned out that way. Most incumbent leaders elsewhere would have been happy to campaign on a buoyant, job-creating economy and very low unemployment, and stress unity rather than division and fear. Trump now has to choose between escalating conflict or, uncharacteristically, reaching across the aisle to pave a bipartisan path towards passing legislation.

The result has restored Nancy Pelosi, Democrat minority leader in the House, to her former position as majority leader during president Barack Obama’s time. She is no stranger to China, having urged Trump after he started the trade war to “do much more to fight for American workers and products”. Indeed, when it comes to the 2020 presidential election, the Democrats, who are generally more anti-trade, can be expected to offer fierce competition with Republicans for “China votes” in the industrial states. Meanwhile, it can only be hoped that the projected summit between Trump and President Xi Jinping early next month will reach an accord that reduces the pressure on presidential hopefuls to remain tough on China.