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Donald Trump says if Joe Biden wins the US presidential election, “China wins”. Photo: AFP

US election: what would the Trump and Biden foreign policy teams look like and how is China affected?

  • The poll on November 3 comes amid consensus that the US needs a tougher stance on China but the candidates diverge on trade, allies, immigration and decoupling
  • In discussion of China’s human rights failings, Biden has described Xi Jinping as a ‘thug’; Trump says if Biden wins, China wins
US President Donald Trump has been reaching into his 2016 playbook to target China during his re-election campaign, playing up his administration’s combative approach to Beijing and portraying his opponent Joe Biden as “soft” on China.

At a rally last week in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Trump honed in on this message: “This election is a simple choice – if Biden wins, China wins, all these other countries win, we get ripped off by everybody. If we win, you win, Pennsylvania wins, and America wins, very simple.”

Meanwhile, Biden slammed Trump’s “ America first” policies for alienating the United States’ allies, describing the phase one trade deal with China as an “unmitigated disaster” and vowing to “build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behaviour”.
Their clash over China comes amid a growing consensus that the US needs a tougher stance against Beijing, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. It also comes a time when many perceive the inability to liberalise China despite decades of engagement as a failure. The two men have built up foreign policy teams that reflect this debate.

On Trump’s side, his China advisers have been notably divided between the trade-focused camp, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, and the China hawks, like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger.

While Mnuchin and Lighthizer helped orchestrate the signing of the phase one trade deal with China, the intensifying strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington across multiple fronts – including the technology war and coronavirus pandemic – has ceded space to the China hawks.

But despite efforts to push Beijing, China’s trade figures showed its surplus with the US was 43.6 per cent higher in September than in January 2017 when Trump first took office.

With the trade deal having lost its sheen, issues such as the South China Sea, Chinese technology and Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong have come to the fore.

Pompeo in particular has been singled out by China’s foreign ministry and Chinese state media over his aggressive push to sharpen the US stance against Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, to lobby US allies to bar Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and to counter Chinese influence in the US and globally.

Pottinger, a fluent Mandarin speaker and former US correspondent who was arrested while reporting in China, has also been key in shaping a more confrontational policy, including reportedly pushing the term “Wuhan virus” to focus blame for the pandemic on China.

Other notable figures include Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who served as a backchannel with Chinese officials, and the fervently anti-immigration adviser Stephen Miller, who lobbied Trump to end all student visas for Chinese nationals.

Trump-Biden final debate: China ‘will be forced to play by international rules’

Biden’s prospective foreign policy picks are expected to focus on US alliance building to counter Beijing’s growing influence internationally, likely marking a shift from the Obama era’s weak “pivot to Asia”. Compared to Trump’s rare protestations on China’s human rights abuses, Biden has described Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a “thug” because of Beijing’s mass internment camps in Xinjiang and the Democratic candidate vowed to sanction China over Tibet and to meet with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Many of those who served in the foreign policy apparatus under Barack Obama’s administration when Biden was vice-president are expected to take up key roles if he wins the race for the White House.

Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defence and likely Biden candidate for US defence secretary, argued in a June piece for Foreign Policy that it would take a “concerted effort to rebuild the credibility of US deterrence” to reduce the risk of war with China.

Is Donald Trump hoping his China-bashing can help him win re-election?

Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, has also been a senior Biden foreign policy adviser. Last month at a US Chamber of Commerce event, he said it was “unrealistic and ultimately counterproductive” to seek to fully decouple from China, and that the focus should be on expanding US strategic ties with allies.

Others of influence in the Biden orbit include former national security adviser Colin Kahl, senior foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser Ely Ratner and Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies think tank.

Sullivan co-authored an analysis in May that said there were “unmistakable” and “ubiquitous” signs that China was seeking to contest US global leadership. He urged US investments in both military and technology tools to compete while at the same time defending US alliances and partnerships.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hustings highlight differences on Beijing Biden, Trump differ radically on Beijing