Trump Needs China More Than Biden
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Trump's high-stakes China gamble could end up hurting the world, America — and the president himself.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
“China doesn’t want to see me elected,” President Donald Trump claimed last Thursday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted there is “enormous evidence” the coronavirus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And Trump’s re-election campaign has already tried to portray presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as soft on Beijing. “China would like to see Sleepy Joe Biden; they would take this country for a ride like you’ve never seen before,” Trump has said.
Join the dots, and the signals are clear: Trump hopes to flip the 2016 narrative, when his victory was tainted by Russian intelligence efforts to assist him. This time, Trump wants the world to believe that China would like Biden to defeat him. At a time he faces uncomfortable questions over his handling of the crisis, that’s a very dangerous ploy from the president — for America, for the world and for Trump himself.
Let’s leave aside the fact that there’s no evidence China has any favorite in the U.S. elections (Yes, Trump has challenged China economically more than most predecessors, but he has also thrilled rival nations by destabilizing the American political system). Let’s also ignore the reality that scientists have found no link between the virus and the lab in Wuhan, and have — including America’s top infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci — said that they believe the animal-to-human transmission that sparked the pandemic likely occurred in one of the central Chinese city’s wet markets.
What makes Trump’s campaign strategy worrying for America and the world is that China is no Russia. His administration is reportedly preparing an arsenal of punishments for Beijing, from enhanced tariffs on Chinese goods to sanctions against the world’s second-largest economy. When the U.S. threatened other nations to dramatically cut trade with Russia or face sanctions, after the 2016 interference and Moscow’s earlier annexation of Crimea, the choice for the world was inconvenient but easy. Washington was asking countries to pick between two very unequal partners: Russia’s international trade volume is only a tenth of America’s.
But if Trump were to impose a similar set of demands in the case of Beijing, it would be very different. China and the U.S. are neck and neck as nations that engage in the most international trade. More countries count China as their top source of imports, rather than the U.S. It’s the third-largest market for American exports (after Canada and Mexico). As the global economy tries to claw its way out of a historic recession — which the IMF estimates will be the worst we’ve seen since the Great Depression — American companies and other nations simply cannot afford to give up on Chinese goods and the country’s market. And any move to renege on the $1.1 trillion that China owns in American debt — another weapon Trump is reportedly mulling — would destroy the credibility of the dollar, and spook other countries into selling off their U.S. debts.
For sure, the world must seek accountability from China for its attempts at covering up the coronavirus threat. But that needs to be done in a manner that at the same time allows cooperation with Beijing in reviving the global economy. A decade is a lifetime in today’s world of quickfire presidential tweets, but it’s important to remember that it was coordinated action between the U.S., China, Europe and India that dragged the world out of the 2008 recession.
With multiple countries — from Australia to Germany — questioning China’s approach to the pandemic, the Trump administration could lend its weight to a global diplomatic campaign pressuring Beijing to answer questions it has so far avoided. The crisis has also made many manufacturers rethink their dependence on China’s supply chains. Focusing on facilitating their shift to other countries, including to the U.S. through tax breaks and other incentives, would make more sense for Washington than overt economic coercion against Beijing.
By instead turning China into a political punching bag, Trump risks hurting his own re-election chances. Already, his campaign’s targeting of Biden has pushed the former vice president into also taking hawkish, anti-China positions. “Trump rolled over for the Chinese,” says one Biden campaign ad that tries to paint the president as weak against Beijing. “He took their word for it.” Another ad, paid for by the pro-Biden super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, alleges that “everyone knew they lied about the virus — China,” and claims “President Trump gave China his trust.”
If this tit-for-tat over China continues to spiral, Trump will feel pressure to outdo Biden and to keep ramping up rhetoric — and actions — against Beijing. That will further narrow the window for cooperation between the world’s two biggest economies that’s critical at a moment of global crisis. Ultimately, Trump needs signs of an economic recovery by November to overcome the decline in ratings that he has suffered since the pandemic began. And for that, he requires China’s help — far more than Biden does.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi