In a speech last week to commemorate 70 years since China’s entry into the Korean War, President Xi Jinping launched a thinly-veiled attack on the U.S. “No blackmailing, blocking or extreme pressuring will work” for those seeking to become “boss of the world,” Xi told veterans and cadres crammed into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The 1950-53 Korean War, he went on, “broke the myth that the U.S. military is invincible.”
With U.S.-China relations at a decades-long nadir, it was fitting that Xi threw down the gauntlet on the anniversary of one of the only times the People’s Liberation Army and U.S. troops have faced off on the battlefield—a conflict still known in China as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”
The upcoming U.S. election on Nov. 3 could be a turning point for American foreign policy, particularly regarding Beijing, which has borne the brunt of the Trump Administration’s sledgehammer approach to diplomacy. Chinese trade practices, tech companies, diplomats and even students have been in the crosshairs, feeding Beijing’s paranoia that the U.S. is pursuing a Soviet-era policy of containment.
Much hangs in the balance: economics, nuclear proliferation, the climate crisis, human rights as well as possible military confrontations. Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden controls the White House may decide if the last four years of rancor was an aberration or the new normal for relations between the world’s top two economies.
“China, of course, is very concerned about the election,” says Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “If Biden wins, he may take a multilateral approach, more coherence with U.S. alliances. If Trump wins, he’ll definitely continue harsh policies toward China.”
But whoever sits in the Oval Office in January, a return to fulsome engagement appears off the table.
Global rivalry between the U.S. and China
Washington’s attempts to isolate Beijing from an integrated and interconnected global economy have forced U.S. companies to relinquish established supply chains in China. Senior administration hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also openly questioned the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and called for regime change.
As a result, the U.S. is losing the goodwill of ordinary Chinese, with moderate voices within society replaced by resurgent nationalism. Meanwhile, the vacuum created by the Trump Administration’s America First approach has allowed Beijing to co-opt international institutions. China now sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council despite detaining one million Muslims in its far west region of Xinjiang. It champions the Paris Climate Accords and free trade despite being the world’s worst polluter and propping up key industries with state funds.
This has allowed China to develop a narrative that it is reasserting its rightful place in global leadership while the U.S is in terminal decline—riven by income inequality, political polarization, racial injustice and toxic nativism. That has been strengthened by Trump’s inability or unwillingness to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. while China has successfully controlled the coronavirus within its borders and is the only major economy heading for growth this year.
At the same time, China has torpedoed some of its relationships around the world as it seeks to swell its influence. When the normally urbane Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Europe late August—ironically to smooth trade tensions—he threatened Norway with reprisals were it to give the Nobel Peace Prize to Hong Kong protesters, and swore that the president of the Czech senate would pay a “heavy price” for visiting the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province. (The affront prompted the Mayor of Prague to brand Chinese diplomats “rude clowns.”) On Oct. 21, China responded to Sweden’s decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network by threatening a “negative impact” on Swedish companies.
China’s military capability
Worryingly, Beijing’s hawkish Wolf Warrior diplomacy has gone beyond rhetoric and strayed into saber-rattling with U.S. allies. In recent months, China has ramped up military drills around Taiwan, sailed a record number of sorties into Japan’s territorial waters and engaged in deadly Himalayan border clashes with India. This appears to be more than mere chest-thumping; analysts suspect that China may be pitting its formidable yet untested military against unprepared foes in order to better gauge its own capabilities as well as the likelihood of an international backlash.
“India is a perfect target because it’s not a treaty ally of anybody,” says John Pomfret, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post and author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present. “You push the Indians around a little bit, declare victory and leave. That would signal the rest of the world that China’s big and bad and can do this type of stuff so watch out.”
Beijing insists that it is the victim of Indian aggression in the recent Himalayan skirmishes. But it is less meek about designs for Taiwan, which split politically from the mainland following China’s 1927-1949 civil war and is by far the CCP’s most coveted prize. Xi considers reuniting the island with the mainland a historic “mission” and analysts agree it is the most likely issue to force a military confrontation between the superpowers.
In an Oct. 10 speech, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called for “reconciliation and peaceful dialogue” with Beijing. Instead, Beijing responded within hours by releasing previously unseen footage of a large-scale military exercise simulating the invasion of an unidentified island, as well as video of a staged confession from a Taiwanese businessman charged with spying on the mainland.
Oriana Skylar Mastro, a specialist on China’s military at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, says that up until 2015 the main consideration of Chinese military leaders was Washington’s resolve to defend Taiwan. Now, however, she says they tell her: “It doesn’t matter. We would still win.”
The veracity of those sentiments is a matter of hot debate, but concerningly, “China has a remarkable tendency to overestimate its power,” says Pomfret. In September, the PLA Air Force released a video on its official social media showing nuclear-capable H-6 bombers carrying out a simulated raid on what looks like Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. Pacific island of Guam. In a clear reference to U.S. support for Taiwan, Xi told the Great Hall of the People last week that any attempt to invade or separate China’s “sacred territory” will be met “with a head-on blow!”
Sino-U.S. relations after the election
It’s a precarious situation in need of deft diplomacy. Some China hawks in the Trump Administration are calling for Taiwan to be provided with an explicit U.S. defense guarantee. But that would be “provocative and expensive,” says Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director for the nonpartisan Defense Priorities think tank. “I’m not in favor.”
Trump’s distaste for multinational institutions like NATO, and dislike of U.S. troop deployments overseas, has made America’s allies take their own security more seriously. On Monday, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of 100 Boeing-made Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems to Taiwan in a deal worth as much as $2.37 billion, prompting China to impose sanctions on the U.S. companies involved.
“Taiwan could do more, Japan could do more,” says Friedman. “They could buy more defensive systems, particularly mobile missiles and radar that will make it harder to be invaded.”
Biden, by contrast, has voiced support for a multilateral approach in the region, restoring America’s role in global governance and re-establishing a liberal democratic order. Writing on Oct. 22 in World Journal, America’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, Biden vowed to “stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity and values in the Asia-Pacific region … That includes deepening our ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy, major economy, technology powerhouse—and a shining example of how an open society can effectively contain COVID-19.”
Biden has railed against Trump’s trade war—which studies estimate has trimmed 0.7% from U.S. GDP—and would likely rollback many tariffs. He also said that he would organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world” during his first year in office.
Reasserting such historic alliances could cause Beijing much heartburn. “We are 25% of the world’s economy,” Biden told the audience at the final presidential debate Oct. 23. “We need to have the rest of our friends with us saying to China, ‘These are the rules, you play by them or you will pay the price for not playing by them, economically.’”
While there’s no doubt that Biden would be tougher on China than Obama, many in diplomatic circles hope he could reopen lines of communication with Beijing to seek pragmatic solutions on trade, the environment, human rights and other issues. America still has many tools. The dollar’s role as global reserve currency has become more important during the pandemic. And the U.S. still boasts the world’s biggest economy, spearheading innovation.
But the U.S. has never faced a rival that can compete economically and militarily as China can. In the week before his Korean War anniversary speech, Xi addressed the nation on state-run television: “We Chinese know well we must speak to invaders with the language they understand,” he said. “So we use war to stop war, we use military might to stop hostility, we win peace and respect with victory. In the face of difficulty or danger, our legs do not tremble, our backs do not bend.”