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China-US relations

US election results unlikely to change Donald Trump’s tough stance on China, observers say

  • US president more likely to view poll as a vote of confidence for his domestic and foreign policies
  • Curbing China’s rise is the one issue on which Republicans and Democrats agree
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 8:23am

The mixed results in Tuesday’s US midterm elections provided further evidence of the political divisions caused by President Donald Trump’s contentious domestic agenda, but left Beijing no wiser as to the possible future direction of his hardline policy on China.

While Trump’s power may be weakened as a result of a divided Congress that looks set to put him under intense scrutiny, observers in both China and the US say the outcome may have little, if any, effect on the unfolding power play between the world’s two biggest economies that has plunged their ties into their worst downward spiral for decades.

“The conflict between China and the US, this mistrust and angry sentiment is more among the elite, and is not something that concerns everyday voters,” said Zha Daojiong, a professor of international political economy at Peking University in Beijing. “No matter what party they belong to, what topic they are voting on, the China factor is very little or even non-existent.”

US-China trade war: are Illinois’ soybean farmers losing faith in Donald Trump?

As in previous midterm polls, foreign policy matters took a back seat to divisive domestic issues like jobs, health care and immigration.

“US-China relations are not a central issue for voters,” said Zhao Ma, an associate professor of modern Chinese history and culture at Washington University in St Louis. “Even though many experts argue that a pain-free trade war with China is nearly impossible, US consumers, especially farmers in the heartland, haven’t yet felt such pain; and most of them continue to support Trump’s domestic agenda and foreign policy.

“Although a split congress could block much of Trump’s controversial agenda and even start the impeachment process, it is highly unlikely to reverse the downward turn of the US-China relations, in light of the bipartisan consensus in Washington that sees China as a ‘revisionist power’ undermining the US-led global political and economic order,” he said.

Observers say Trump is more likely to view the elections results – which saw his Republican Party lose control of the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years while maintaining its majority in the Senate – as a vote of confidence for his domestic and foreign policies.

Just hours after the polls closed, the 72-year-old former reality television star tweeted that the elections were a “tremendous success” for his “America first” strategy, despite the outcome being widely reported as a major setback for him.

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

According to Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations and director of American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, Trump was likely to toughen his tough rhetoric on China over trade and other thorny security and diplomatic issues.

“Congress does not have much of a direct role in Trump’s foreign policy and Trump will maintain his firm control,” he said. “I don’t see any imminent positive shifts in his China policy.”

Orville Schell, a veteran US expert on China, agreed the midterm elections were unlikely to yield any changes to Trump’s China policy, citing “very rare” bipartisan consensus in Washington on the need to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness.

“There is no group in America any more that wants to develop good relations with China no matter what,” all are saying that the relation is out of balance, said Schell, the Arthur Ross director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.

While foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China would not comment on US domestic affairs, she said the two sides should manage their differences and ensure stable relations for the benefit of both nations and the world.

‘Don’t count on a Xi-Trump sit-down’ at the G20 to settle the trade war between China and the United States

Beijing will soon have an opportunity to gauge Trump’s standpoint when two senior officials travel to Washington this week.

Yang Jiechi, director of the Communist Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe will meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis for the second US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, following a meeting in June 2017.

It will be the first senior-level dialogue since the trade war started in July and is expected to pave the way for the planned meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Argentina later this month.

David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman of private equity firm The Carlyle Group, asked an audience of business leaders – including Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic adviser – at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum on Wednesday if anyone thought Trump’s policies would change after the midterms. No one raised a hand.

“I don’t think the president will think he’s been weakened,” he said, pointing to the Republicans’ tightened grip on the Senate. “The real question people should ask is what are the Democrats going to do with power? Power can go to your head.”

Trump told reporters earlier he wanted to adopt a more moderate tone, so after the midterms there could be some arrangement with China to “bring some kind of resolution to the uncertainties” on trade, Rubenstein said.

US midterms result: good for Democrats, bad for Asia, says Trump critic

In the months leading up to the midterms, the US-China trade tensions have spilled over into other areas, including a bitter war of words over human rights abuses in China’s far western Xinjiang region, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and accusations of Beijing trying to boost its geopolitical influence.

“But if Trump is hoping that an all-out offensive will force China to surrender, that is not going to happen,” Ma said. “In the wake of the midterm elections, the Trump administration might start to clarify its priorities and present China with a workable list of demands so as to avoid a protracted conflict.”

Yuan Peng, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said China-US relations were at a turning point that would see competition, rather than cooperation, becoming the dominant factor.

“The midterm election [results] may have some effect, but will not fundamentally alter the growing rivalry between the two powers,” he said. “The best both parties can do is manage the competition and try to stop it escalating into an all-out confrontation.”

Shi said China and the US were destined for a protracted period of tension or even a new cold war as many others had predicted.

The only way to avoid such a “nightmare scenario” was for Beijing to reverse its aggressive diplomatic and military approach and make real efforts towards adjusting its much-criticised unfair trade policies and practices, he said.

Peter Levesque, chief executive of container terminal operator Modern Terminals and a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said the results of the midterm elections would do little to change the course of the US-China trade war.

“On trade, I don’t think that today’s results will change Washington’s sentiment on China,” he said during a panel discussion organised by the chamber and held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. “It’s probably the one thing, or one grievance, that the Democrats and the Republicans agree on.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was a ramp-up [in hostilities] before the election,” Levesque said.

“I think the way this has been set up is that Trump may be able to get two things done at the same time: be strong against China leading up to midterms [and] he has an opportunity to sit down with President Xi.

“And if China understands Trump’s personality, I think there is a good possibility that it could offer some kind of a bold solution to try to move past the trade war,” he said.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu, Sarah Zheng and Su Xinqi