During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump attacked Barack Obama and his former secretary of state – and 2016 Democratic candidate – Hillary Clinton for their presumably “soft” stance on China. Trump’s “tough guy” approach and the forceful isolationism he campaigned on (“Make America Great Again”) entrenched that narrative as the candidate heightened real-life fears that permeated the business community (including intellectual property theft and loss of competitiveness due to administrative regulations and unfair trade agreements). He accused his predecessors of condoning the delocalization of American jobs to China.
China ultimately illustrated a broader point on globalization Trump was making, and the People’s Republic became a boogeyman voters could easily identify and rally against. On election night, it helped Trump notch unexpected victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, all Rust Belt states handily carried by Democrats before (and where a confident Hillary Clinton sometimes didn’t even show up during the last months of the campaign).
From an economic perspective, Trump’s China policy has brought mixed-to-negative results. The COVID-19 pandemic made more stark the American reliance on Chinese manufacturing and some firms are actively lobbying to end his administration’s China tariffs. Since 2017, examples of re-localization to the United States have been anecdotal at best, and many counties continue to rely on Chinese firms to maintain fledgling industries or to bring jobs to deserted economic areas. Also, the trade war has hit American farmers especially hard, so much so that Iowa is now at play in this year’s election. It is a surprising development as the Corn State turned to Trump in 2016 by a wider margin than Texas did, but China’s retaliatory tariffs have halved American agricultural exports to China.
This brings many observers, such as Dingding Chen in a column for The Diplomat a few days ago, to forecast a détente between the two countries in 2021, which could be in line with the so-called “Phase One trade agreement” the two countries signed before the pandemic.
But U.S. foreign policy has long been directed by domestic factors, and even more so under the Trump administration. The representation of China as a threat has become more solidly entrenched over the past four years. For that reason, we should be more cautious in predicting the future of the relationship based solely on economic factors. In fact, the U.S. domestic political context doesn’t favor a détente.
First, foreign policy and international trade only marginally impact American voters. Though the Vietnam War and 9/11 once caught their attention, voters mostly prioritize the economy (i.e., the unemployment-GDP growth-inflation troika) and, to a lesser extent, societal questions. Back in January, healthcare and the economy topped voters’ priorities, and the pandemic has only reinforced both concerns.
That said, the American public usually looks to “strong” presidential candidates. In 2016, Donald Trump prevailed because he convinced Republicans he was the right choice to stop immigration and fight terrorism. Republicans remain partial to representations of “law and order” and favor defense expenditures whereas Democrats have tried to compensate for the “security gap” by adopting stronger stances on foreign policy issues.
Neither of this year’s candidates advertise anything but a renegotiation of the so-called trade unbalance between China and the United States. Donald Trump found some successes, as American public opinion has shifted in his favor: two-third of Americans view China negatively now (up from just 47 percent in 2017). Truly, Trump endorsed what seemed like a winning issue in 2016 because the public began to sour on the Chinese government during Barack Obama’s presidency. And he will keep focusing on that in 2020. Likewise, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden hasn’t diverted from this path: his campaign acknowledged in May that the candidate will be focusing on Trump’s “tough talk, weak actions” in dealing with Beijing. Because Biden feels the pressure to reassure the working class on trade and industrial employment, he isn’t likely to drive a sudden return to normalcy with China if elected.
Second, the 2024 presidential campaign will be in everyone’s mind by January 2021, either because a re-elected Trump will be term-limited or because Biden has indicated he would be a one-term president. It’s a bit too early to hypothesize on the Democratic candidate, but many Republican contenders have already positioned themselves on China. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have supported the trade war (Pompeo is also vocal on Hong Kong). Others, such as Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have been honing their foreign policy credentials, which includes taking a strong position on China. To get a sense of how important “being tough on China” has become for the Republicans, just look at the current Republican primary campaigns for the Senate in Alabama and in Kansas.
Then, China increasingly appears as a national security threat. Cyberattacks attributed to Chinese hackers are becoming more frequent and experts and the general public alike are becoming more worried about them. Huawei’s efforts to bring its smartphones in the American market have so far failed and national security concerns have already led to investigations into TikTok and other apps launched, or owned, by Chinese companies.
Finally, it appears that the business world is also shifting on China. For years, leading American companies have lobbied hard to support the U.S.-China relationship (including Chinese candidacy in the World Trade Organization) to get access to China’s domestic market in return. But as Washington drifts away from past commitments, several companies and consultants have acknowledged that China never opened to the extend they were promised. If Tesla, Apple, and a few other companies are still defending an end to tariffs, others have been more eager to confront the Chinese authorities. Social media platforms, already barred from China, have been increasingly bearish: in recent days Facebook has decided to label the publications of state-sponsored Chinese media outlets while Twitter has been fact-checking Chinese officials. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago and it highlights a deeper shift in the American public.
Obviously, these brief points don’t forecast a definite worsening of the U.S.-China relationship, but they are meant to show that the conditions of a détente aren’t there in the United States. If economic factors were important in the betterment of the relationship during the 1990s and 2000s, China wasn’t an object of attention for American voters. But this isn’t the case anymore as presidential rhetoric under Obama and, especially, Trump, as well as the repression against demonstrators in Hong Kong and coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic have sustained strong negative views in the American public. As such, more and more voices in Congress, the State and Defense departments, the business community, and think tanks are calling for a stronger U.S. China policy, and Chinese authorities are increasingly becoming the major foreign foe in American politics, filling in for the role long played by Russia.
American politics and policymaking are now permanently marked by the rhythm of presidential campaigning. Trump launched his re-election campaign three weeks after being inaugurated and it is fair to say that he will continue to crisscross the country like a candidate (even without an election in sight) if re-elected in November, because winning is all that seems to matter for him. For that reason, he will continue “being tough” on China, forcing future presidential candidates and hopeful leaders to match his rhetoric.
Maxime Chervaux is a Faculty Lecturer in English and American Politics at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University Paris 8). He researches the influence of Tech on American Politics and of algorithms on the American government.