Trump doubles down on punishing Beijing economically over Uighurs, while Biden’s China policy remains unclear.
In April 2017, US President Donald Trump entertained his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, his luxury golf resort in Florida.
On his way to the White House, China had been one of Trump’s favourite targets.
Now he was all smiles.
“We are going to have a very, very great relationship,” the businessman-turned-politician said after the meeting.
A few months later, Xi feted Trump with a state dinner in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the first foreign leader to be given such an honour.
The two events marked the peak of a relationship that has come undone amid intensifying disputes over trade, technology, maritime claims, human rights and the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus that was first identified in China late last year has spread across the globe and the United States is now the world’s worst-affected country.
Once again, a tough approach to China is central to Trump’s bid for office with the US set to go the polls on November 3.
“It’s probably the worst relationship that they have had since the two established diplomatic relations,” said Adam Ni, Director of the China Policy Centre, an Australian think-tank based in Canberra. “The situation is quite bleak.”
The growing rivalry between the world’s two biggest powers has been felt across the Asia-Pacific, among the US’s traditional allies as well as smaller powers that have for years tried to balance support from the American superpower, alongside deepening ties with China.
“It’s not competition any more,” said Thomas Daniel, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, referring to the US-China dynamic. “It’s turning more and more adversarial. It’s complicating things for us in Southeast Asia especially for those states that want the US to be constructively engaged in the region.”
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was feted on regular trips to the Asia Pacific and a regular guest at meetings of key regional groupings.
His signature Asian strategy – the pivot – was designed to nurture ties across the region but also to pursue engagement with China and cooperation on key issues.
Trump, in contrast, has been notable by his absence, and his disdain for the multilateralism that leaders in Asian capitals view as vital to the region’s long-term peace and stability. After attending the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017, he has not been to the event since.
He has flirted with authoritarian leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un while – touting “America First” – playing hardball with allies such as South Korea in demanding they “pay their way” for the cost of stationing thousands of US troops in the country.
And despite his hardening approach to China, Trump appears to have retained some admiration for Xi. According to his former National Security Adviser John Bolton, during a meeting in Tokyo last year, Trump asked Xi for his help in the US election. Trump has denied the allegation.
Such capricious and transactional decision-making has only added to the confusion about the US commitment to a region it insists is of strategic importance.
But there is also increasing concern about China, which has sought to expand its influence through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and escalated activities in disputed areas such as the South China Sea, which it claims entirely as its own.
Beijing now occupies remote reefs and outcrops where it has built military installations and deployed the Coast Guard and maritime militias in support of its fishing fleets, unsettling the littoral states that also claim the parts of the sea closest to their shores.
The Trump administration has shown a greater willingness to respond to such actions.
The US Navy conducted 24 freedom of navigation journeys through the South China Sea between May 2017 and July 2020. That same month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China’s claims in the sea were “unlawful”, further hardening the US approach.
“You won’t see them cheering on too loudly from the side lines, but there are some who have misgivings about what China is doing, especially in regard to issues such as the South China Sea or along the border with India,” said Joseph Liow, Research Adviser at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“But at the same time these states do not want to jeopardise relations with China because the economic relations they have are broader and deeper and they don’t want to compromise this relationship.”
The Trump administration has also responded more boldly to developments in Xinjiang – where the UN estimates about one million Uighurs are being held in camps that China describes as vocational skills training centres necessary to fight ‘extremism’ – and Hong Kong, where Beijing imposed a sweeping National Security Law in June after nearly a year of anti-government protests.
In both cases, the US has imposed targeted sanctions and in Hong Kong withdrawn the special financial status the territory once enjoyed.
An anonymous Japanese government official wrote in the journal The American Interest in April, that Trump’s more assertive response was preferable to Obama’s strategy of trying to engage China.
“For countries on the receiving end of Chinese coercion, a tougher US line on China is more important than any other aspect of US policy,” the diplomat wrote. “Asian elites – in Taipei, Manila, Hanoi, New Delhi – increasingly calculate that Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach is a lesser evil compared to the danger of the United States going back to cajoling China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder’.”
Taiwan, claimed by China as its own, has been the target of increasingly assertive behaviour by Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president in 2016 (Trump was also the first US president to accept a congratulatory call from a Taiwanese leader).
The US, which is bound by law to support Taiwan even as it maintains formal ties with Beijing, has been selling advanced weaponry to the island and encouraging Taipei to modernise its military, as China steps up air and sea activity across the straits.
“It is true that during President Trump’s first term, US-Taiwan relations have improved quickly,” Chieh-Ting Yeh, Vice Chairman of the Global Taiwan Institute told Al Jazeera, noting the improvement also reflected Tsai’s “principled but measured approach to diplomacy” and “most importantly the increasing aggressiveness of the Chinese Communist Party”.
Yeh stressed the US approach to Taiwan also had broad support across Washington.
“US-Taiwan relations are not determined simply by the whim of President Trump,” he said.
Analysts note the approach to China is one of the few areas of agreement in domestic politics.
“Getting tough on China has become a source of rare bipartisan consensus in a polarised political climate,” wrote Hui Feng, a senior research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, observed in an academic website, The Conversation. “In fact, even if Trump loses the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, a fundamental U-turn in US-China relations is still unlikely.”
Biden, a former vice president under Obama who met Xi several times when he was in government, has said that under his administration the US would lead by the “power of its example” rather than the “example of its power”.
But while he has recruited many former Obama officials to his team, he has also promised a more robust approach to China. He has even referred to Xi as a “thug”.
“No-one thinks it will Obama 2.0,” Liow said. “There is a steady and escalating drumbeat in pushing back on China, but they will want to work with China on a number of issues such as health and climate change where there is a convergence of interests.”
A Biden administration is expected to return the US to the international organisations abandoned by Trump and rejoin the Paris Climate agreement.
Analysts also expect the US under Biden to invest more in its relationship with like-minded democracies including Australia, Japan and South Korea. In the latter, Biden’s campaign has accused Trump of treating alliances like “protection rackets” in his attempt to get more money out of Seoul.
“If Biden wins, expect the Blue House to breathe a sigh of relief,” wrote Linde Desmaele, a researcher at the KF-VUB Korea Chair affiliated with the International Security Cluster of the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in a recent policy brief.
Whoever does emerge the victor in Tuesday’s poll, it is unlikely that the relationship between the two global giants can return to what it was.
The US has changed. And so has China. In the Asia-Pacific diplomats are preparing for four more challenging years.