Biden or Trump: Both options are worrying for China

Biden or Trump: Both options are worrying for China


07 | 05 | 2024


The US policy towards Beijing in the last eight years and what to expect from a Democratic or a Republican victory

In the image

US Presidents Trump and Biden meeting with President Xi of China

The next United States elections, scheduled for November 5th, 2024, are especially important not only for the US but for the whole world, given the increased tensions in the international order. How President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump will approach the competition/rivalry with China will have a global impact in variety of other issues the next four years. This analysis examines the policies towards China carried out by their successive administrations, what a second Biden or Trump’s presidency will mean regarding Washington-Beijing relations, and the advantages and disadvantages each candidate would have for China.

Relations during the Trump Administration

The relations between the Trump administration and China started on the wrong foot when Trump accepted a congratulatory call from the then Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen after becoming president at the beginning of 2017. This angered China, but Trump assured Xi Jinping in a call that he would respect the One-China policy. Trump invited Xi to a two-day summit at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and six months later Xi hosted a banquet for Trump in the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace.

However, on March 22, 2018, the Trump administration placed enormous tariffs on Chinese imports, worth at least $50 billion, according to the then estimated figure, as it accused China of stealing US technology and intellectual property. China retaliated in April with its own tariffs on a range of US products, starting a trade war between the countries with the largest economies in the world. The trade war only escalated during the rest of the year. After trade talks failures, on May 10, 2019, Trump increased the tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth Chinese imports. This was retaliated by China announcing its plan to place tariffs on $60 billion worth of US products. Additionally, Trump’s administration called China a currency manipulator after the Chinese central bank allowed a significant weakening of the yuan.

An important event that further strained their relationship was the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese company Huawei. She was detained in Canada by the United States’ order, who accused the Chinese firm of violating the trade sanctions imposed on Iran and of committing fraud. The US encouraged other countries not to use Huawei to build 5G networks, because it could use this new technology to spy on them for the Chinese Government.

Finally, on January 15, 2020, President Trump and the Chinese Vice Premier Liu He reached an agreement on a relaxation of their trade war, signing the “Phase one” trade deal. This meant a decrease of some US tariffs on Chinese imported goods and a commitment by China to buy $200 billion worth of American products.

Nonetheless, tensions surged once more later in 2020 due to the Covid 19 pandemic, which appeared first in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Officials from both countries blamed each other for being the origin of the virus. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, argued without evidence that the virus was brought to China by US soldiers during the Military World Games held in Wuhan in 2019; while Trump referred to it constantly as the “Chinese virus”, which expanded due to the incompetence of the Chinese Government. This is especially problematic as during this time there were racially motivated attacks on Asian people in the United States as people blamed China the pandemic. But in April, both countries modified their words to give way to a collaboration in this crisis. Still, Trump blamed the World Health Organization for being lenient with China and he made difficult for the WHO to use US funds.

In his last weeks of presidency, Trump took more hardened actions against China to make clear his position: he added multiple Chinese companies to the trade backlist and tightened the rules of visa for the members of the Chinese Communist Party. The Director of National Intelligence declared that China “is the greatest threat to America today”, and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of committing genocide against Uyghurs, the Muslim ethnic minority in the region of Xinjiang (Biden’s administration maintained the accusation and prohibited imports from Xinjiang.)

Relations during the Biden Administration

After becoming president, Biden maintained some of the policies from the Trump administration but emphasized the importance of cooperation with allies. He continued with Trump’s tariffs and placed sanctions on Chinese officials for their policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Besides he added more companies to the trade blacklist and increased a ban from the Trump administration time on US investment in Chinese companies related to the military. In addition, on June 14, 2021, NATO released a communiqué urging its allies to take into account the threats from China. Nonetheless, the US and China showed willingness to cooperate when they met on November 10, 2021, during the UN climate summit in Glasgow, where they agreed on working together and applying several measures to combat climate change.

Then, days after the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022 and rumors of Russia requesting military aid from China, Biden warn in a video with call with Xi that there would be consequences if it was provided. During this time, China did not condemn Russia for its actions and was against the imposition of the sanctions; however, both presidents agreed on the necessity for peace talks. Later, on May 26, 2022, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order” and placed emphasis on encouraging competition towards China.

An event which provoked a significant friction in their relation was the visit of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on August 2, 2022, in a trip which she referred to as a show of support for the island. This was unacceptable for China, who suspended climate talks, broke off high level military communication channels and sanctioned Pelosi. Beijing responded by conducting drills surrounding the island, which were much bigger than the ones during the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996; missiles were launched over the island and aircrafts crossed the line between China and Taiwan. The Group of Seven (G7) declared itself against China’s aggressive military activity, claiming that it could break the stability in the region. For its part, the Chinese Foreign Minister blamed the US, and the Taiwanese President stated that this military action undermined the status quo.

Moreover, in October 2022, the US Government restricted exports of US advanced computing chips to China claiming that China is misusing them to “produce advanced military systems” and “commit human rights abuses.” Nonetheless, a month later, Biden and Xi met in Indonesia both willing to improve their relationship and they set up again communication channels and climate talks which were previously canceled.

Still, adding to the tensions, an incident which resulted in Biden canceling the trip of the Secretary of State to China occurred on February 4, 2023. This was when President Biden ordered the shooting down of a Chinese balloon near the southeastern US coast as it was suspected of spying on US military information. China said it was a civilian weather monitoring craft which by accident got too close to the US airspace and considered the US action a violation of international practices, vowing retaliation. After months of diplomacy to have a meeting, Biden and Xi finally met and agreed on stabilizing their relationship.

Lastly, the two presidents had a meeting on November 15, 2023, in San Francisco in which they exchanged opinions on several subjects such as artificial intelligence governance, counternarcotics and defense, as well as promises to better their transport links and extend cultural exchanges between the countries. Biden stated the meeting was “among the most constructive and productive we’ve had.”

Differences in their China policies

During his presidency, Biden has put himself as a leader across its multiple allies who is willing to dialogue with China, very different from Trump’s stance based on isolationism and putting America first. Biden has carried out different measures to assure its alliance against China by aligning allies in the Indo-Pacific and beyond to be capable of encountering China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. While also engaging with China and having dialogues in order to not have such a tense relationship, as we see by the various meetings they have had despite incidents that sometimes halt them, such as the case with the Chinese balloon.

For his part, Trump is not so thoughtful about the United States international position, choosing to focus on the domestic affairs of the country and improving its situation economically, without so much concern about where the global leadership role falls. That is why he described the US-China relationship as “the best we’ve ever had” after signing the “Phase One” trade deal despite all the negative remarks he had said about China.

The clearest difference in Trump and Biden’s China’s policy could be said to be their approach to Taiwan. Biden has stated clearly that he would defend Taiwan in case of an attack, and has been building alliances in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing power and aggressive moves. On the contrary, Trump has declared he sees Taiwan as an economic rival, saying that it “took all of our chip business.” Additionally, Trump has a clear isolationist stance, more recently seen in his opposition to the Senate bill whose objective was to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

China’s future if Trump wins

Trump was the one who radically changed the relationship between the two nations by adopting the extreme tariffs on Chinese imports. Nowadays, he is announcing his plans of initiating another trade war by imposing tariffs of 60% or higher on Chinese products if he is elected once again. An action which would greatly affect China’s economy, which is already suffering from decreasing consumer demand as well as decreasing prices, among problems like youth unemployment. It is not clear whether Trump would indeed back his words with actions as it would also negatively impact the United States’ economy, especially if China retaliated, which would be likely.

However, Trump back as president would also change the geopolitical environment, in which the West is currently focusing on creating alliances against Russia and, more recently, China. The United States backing off from those alliances would imply less pressure over China as well as space for it to become the new global leader.

There is already proof of his stance against those alliances like when he declared that he would not come to the defense of NATO countries which would not invest enough on their military; he has also shown himself willing to place trade measures against European countries. This could open an opportunity for China to better its relationship with Europe, strained by its refusal to condemn Russia for its attacks on Ukraine; it would benefit China to have Europe and the United States separated. Moreover, Trump has also been critical of the pacts done with South Korea and Japan, and has threatened with removing troops located there. This would content China as it has already shown its dissatisfaction with the presence of the US in the region and of Biden’s diplomatic attempts to build alliances against China. In the case of the Taiwan issue, it would be as well advantageous for Beijing, because, as said before, Trump appears to be uninterested in involving the United States in external affairs and costly wars, especially in the defense of an economic rival. Many people also see Trump as a destabilizing force for the United States domestically, raising divisions within the country. However, Trump is less predictable and more impulsive than Biden, which could pose greater risks to China.

China’s future if Biden wins

On the other hand, Biden is seen as more stable and level headed, with interest in maintaining global stability which means more willingness to work with China. He is also more familiar with Xi Jinping as they have been meeting for years, since they were both vice presidents. However, it is said that Biden has disappointed officials in the Foreign Ministry by maintaining most of the Trump tariffs, as well as carrying out a policy which stopped American funding from being utilized to improve China’s military skills. Analysts say this has greatly affected Chinese high-tech development, something which Xi is urgently trying to fix.

In addition, Biden’s attempt at building alliances all over the world are making China wary. He has been successful in strengthening several alliances which coordinate to keep at bay China such as the G7, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States AUKUS alliance, the Australia-India-Japan-United States quadrilateral grouping, the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, and through the Japan-South Korea-United States trilateral cooperation. As well as the most recent military partnership between the United States, Japan, and the Philippines, having taken place on April 10, 2024. The ones in Asia are especially worrying for Xi due to their proximity. But the alliances with the European countries are also making him discontent, as Biden has succeeded in getting them on board in an effort to ‘de-risk’ supply chains involving Chinese products.

From Shanghai, the analyst Shen Dingli told the CNN that the alliance strategy Biden uses to isolate China may be more effective than Trump’s policies, and while Biden would not likely raise tariffs, he could make it challenging for China to make high-tech products. He added that the current president could achieve a multilateral effort in containing China while not letting tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea rise. Furthermore, Biden has already expressed his support for Taiwan and his willingness to defend it, if necessary, even backing away from the United States’ usual ambiguity regarding Taiwan.

Biden emphasizes the ongoing competition between the United States and China, nonetheless, his long political career and commitment in maintaining global stability makes him more predictable. It could be said that Biden leads in a more philosophical and political way while Trump leads from an economic perspective.

Two evils

To conclude, both options are worrying for China; it is like having to pick the best of the two evils as both could have negative consequences for Beijing’s interests. For now, China is stuck between a predictable leader focused on building alliances against it and an unpredictable opportunist which will do whatever benefits economically his country.