China shaping up to be central campaign theme for both Donald Trump and Joe Biden

Robert Delaney

China might be the second most important campaign issue in this year’s US presidential campaign, but the country is tied so directly to issue No 1 – the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic – that it might not matter.

As President Donald Trump and his presumptive Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, compete to portray themselves as being the toughest on Beijing, the only factor that will prevent a complete diplomatic severance, former government officials and experts said, will be the need to restore economic growth.

US media reports on Thursday that the Trump administration was pursuing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus’ origins and was formulating a raft of measures to hold China responsible for the pandemic’s damage have brought this competition into sharper focus.

This presidential campaign “will likely be the most politicised that China has been in the United States since Tiananmen Square” in 1989, said Evan Medeiros, who served as former president Barack Obama’s top policy adviser for the Asia-Pacific region. “We’re entering a very treacherous period.”

Former vice-president Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee who will take on US President Donald Trump in November. Photos: AP

In a recent campaign ad, Trump said, “for 40 years Joe Biden has been wrong about China”, and attacked the Democrat for past comments that China’s rise was a positive development.

Trump administration mulling how to punish China over coronavirus pandemic

That line of argument ties Biden to the US trade deficit with China, which rose to a record US$347 billion in 2016, the last full year of the two-term Barack Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president. The deficit rose to US$420 billion in 2018, when Trump started a trade war that has kept tariffs of up to 25 per cent on about US$370 billion worth of Chinese imports.

A recent Biden campaign ad went after Trump directly for his response to Beijing’s statements about the outbreak, using the president’s own statements from January and February to do so.

The advertisement, released on April 18, accused Trump of accepting Beijing’s word in February – as Covid-19 cases began spreading beyond mainland China – that the country’s health authorities had the contagion under control, and features Trump’s expressions of confidence in Beijing’s handling of the outbreak.

“Both campaigns are using China's role in the pandemic because it's an external factor that everyone can point to,” said Wenchi Yu, a former senior researcher for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a US government body that monitors human rights and rule of law developments in the country.

“If you look at the past 20 years, every presidential election cycle, the rhetoric around China is always very hard, but this year is different simply because the pandemic has put China into all of our lives; it’s no longer limited to, say, jobs lost in Michigan or Ohio,” said Yu, who is now a non-resident research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “This is being felt by everybody; it’s in every facet of our society.”

US seeks access to virology lab in Wuhan

This flood of disruption into Americans’ lives has led Trump to look for ways to put the blame for the pandemic on the Chinese government’s doorstep. And just such an effort appears to be under way, according to a New York Times report on Thursday.

The Times reported that Trump administration officials have pushed US intelligence for evidence to support allegations that the contagion that has killed more than 60,000 Americans originated in a government laboratory in Wuhan, the mainland Chinese city where the outbreak started in late 2019.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has become the centre of a number of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. If evidence surfaced proving such a theory, Trump could wield it as a weapon that would deflect attention from his China-friendly comments in January and February.

CNN reported on Thursday, citing sources it did not identify, that Trump was preparing “a long-term plan to punish China” that includes sanctions, cancelling US debt obligations and drawing up new trade policies.

For the time being, Trump’s messaging is mixed.

Asked by a reporter in Washington later on Thursday about the origins of the coronavirus, Trump said Chinese government officials “seem to be trying to be somewhat transparent”.

But when pressed about what punishment he might be considering, Trump dismissed the idea of not honouring US debt obligations as that would undermine the US dollar.

“But we can do it in other ways,” Trump said. “We can do it with tariffs, we can do it other ways even beyond that.”

Beijing says it’s not interested in meddling in US presidential race

One factor that could limit the candidates’ drive to make China a centrepiece of their battle will be the success of efforts to stage a post-pandemic economic recovery.

A report last month by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, titled Cascading Impacts of the Covid-19 Outbreak in China, highlighted several industry surveys showing that 76 per cent of small US businesses were being negatively affected by supply disruptions in China, and 84 per cent of US electronics firms expressed concern that these interruptions would hurt them financially.

Chinese tourism and spending on US higher education generated US$50 billion in revenue in 2018, according to US government data.

These economic realities, along with a desire to keep his phase one trade deal intact, have so far kept Trump restrained in terms of his rhetoric towards Beijing, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican lawmakers including Senators Rick Scott of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri hammer away at Beijing on multiple fronts.

If anything holds Trump back, it is the counsel of business leaders in his circle warning that further damage to relations with Beijing will make the economic damage worse and more difficult to recover from, Medeiros said.

Additional agricultural purchases by China as part of the phase one trade deal, for example, will be important to US farmers, a constituency that will be key in the upcoming election, he said.

US exports to China supported at least 1 million US jobs in 2018, said Anna Ashton, who is in charge of government affairs at the Washington-based US-China Business Council.

“Unfortunately, we are beginning to see that trend take a negative turn” owing to the trade war, Ashton said. She pointed out that annual US exports to China fell 11.4 per cent in 2019 to US$105 billion, marking a continued slide from a high of US$127 billion in 2017.

How China responds to the US campaign rhetoric, including demands for more transparency from the US government on the coronavirus’ origins, will determine whether the two sides stay engaged.

China is under attack for the pandemic, but its diplomats are fighting back

But Beijing’s response so far does not bode well for engagement, said Kurt Tong, former US consul general to Hong Kong.

In recent weeks, senior Chinese diplomats in France, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, Singapore and Peru made headlines by trading barbs with local media, officials and academics they considered critical of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.

“The international reaction to China’s rhetoric has been crystal clear and very negative,” Tong said. “The message about their ability to bring the virus under control has been squandered, and there hasn’t been much of an effort to get their tone more in line with what would be acceptable to other countries,” said Tong, who is now a partner at Washington-based business consultancy The Asia Group.

“A shrill Chinese response will make it harder, but not impossible, for the two countries to re-engage in 2021.”

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