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China hopes for change if Biden wins, but little respite likely

PTI Beijing | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 23, 2020

Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden   -  REUTERS

Chinese leaders hope Washington will tone down conflicts over trade, technology and security if Joe Biden wins the November 3 US presidential election. But any shift is likely to be in style, not substance, as frustration with Beijing increases across the American political spectrum.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and their constituents seem disinclined to adopt a softer approach toward China, possibly presaging more strife ahead, regardless of the election’s outcome.

US-Chinese relations have plunged to their lowest level in decades amid an array of conflicts over the coronavirus pandemic, technology, trade, security and spying.

Despite discord on so many other fronts, both US political parties are critical of Beijing’s trade record and stance toward Hong Kong, Taiwan and religious and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, where China’s ruling Communist Party has detained Muslims in political re-education camps.

The American public is equally negative. Two-thirds of people surveyed in March by the Pew Research Center had unfavourable views of China, the highest since Pew started asking in 2005.

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Biden at the helm

“Biden would be savaged if he tried to downplay complaints against Beijing,” said Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Chinese leaders have been quieter about this election than during the 2016 presidential race, when they favoured Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trump’s public image of business success resonated with the Chinese public.

But a Biden presidency might restore a more predictable relationship after the shocks of Trump’s tariff war and his outreach to India, seen as a strategic rival, and other South-East Asian countries with whom Beijing has a series of territorial disputes, Chinese analysts say.

“At the least, Biden’s policy won’t be as emotional and ridiculous as Trump’s,” said Yu Wanli, a professor of international relations at Beijing Language and Culture University.

Democrats appear less militant, so they may take more care to prevent even limited military conflicts and pay more attention to crisis management communication with China, said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing.

Biden, Obama’s Vice-President in 2009-2017, leads in polls but Trump could win if he attracts enough voters in key states such as Florida. Trump pulled off a similar upset in 2016 when he lost the popular ballot but won in enough states to secure the 270 votes required in the Electoral College that decides the election.

US intelligence officials believe Chinese leaders don’t want Trump re-elected, according to a statement by William Evanina, the top counterintelligence official. It didn’t directly accuse China of trying to interfere in the election or to support Biden.

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Moves against China

Trump shook up China’s leaders by hiking tariffs on Chinese exports in 2018 over complaints that Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technology. The White House has lobbied allies to exclude Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, from next-generation telecom networks on security grounds. Huawei’s access to American components and technology was cut off, threatening to cripple its global sales.

Trump is also trying to bar Chinese social media companies from the US, citing fears they might gather too much personal information about Americans. The White House is pressing video service TikTok to sell its US operation and is trying to block companies from dealing with WeChat, the popular Chinese message service.

US companies and trading partners have criticised Trump’s tariff war, which prompted Chinese retaliation that hurt American farmers and factory workers. But complaints that China steals technology and violates its market-opening commitments are widely shared. Beijing tried to recruit France, Germany, South Korea and other governments as allies against Washington, but all refused.

Tariff hikes on Chinese goods would probably be removed only gradually under Biden, said Michael Hirson of Eurasia Group, a research firm, in a report.

Trump’s tariffs were imposed to encourage manufacturers to shift jobs back to the US, a cause long championed by Democrats.

Other governments uneasy over China’s strategic ambitions also are putting curbs on its tech companies on security grounds.

This week, Swedish regulators banned phone carriers from using equipment from Huawei and its smaller Chinese rival ZTE to build high-speed wireless networks after a security official called China one of the country’s biggest threats.

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Published on October 23, 2020
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