China’s cognitive dissonance and US Presidential election

Biden understands that to counter Beijing, the West and America’s allies need to speak with one voice and be willing to act in unison.

 

Conventional wisdom implies that Beijing wants President Donald Trump to be defeated on 3 November. After all, he has presided over the greatest deterioration in Sino-US relations since diplomatic relations were established in 1979 and the path he has set America on vis-à-vis China will endure well beyond the end of his time in office. As a result of his actions, there is now broadly based consensus in the US Congress that Beijing is a bad actor and that China is America’s greatest adversary.

Part of the reason for this, of course, is that America has not had a real peer since the end of the Second World War. China has now become America’s peer—or near peer—economically, diplomatically, technologically, and militarily. America’s leaders recognise that its decades-long dominance of the global economy and the corridors of global power are under threat. That will not change next year or even in the next decade. Beijing is a force to be reckoned with and America’s leaders finally understand what is at stake.

On that basis, there should be no good reason why Beijing would want another four years of Trump. It was his administration that called a spade a spade and stopped vacillating around what numerous prior US administrations had failed to acknowledge or do something meaningful about. Beijing has been formally put on notice that there are now consequences for its theft of American intellectual property, its unending cyber intrusions and cyber thefts, and its consistent efforts to undermine America and its allies.

That is where an argument can be made for why Beijing doesn’t actually want Joe Biden to become President. The Trump administration has also been responsible for the greatest disintegration of America’s bilateral relationships—particularly among its allies—in its history. Trump has succeeded in alienating virtually every substantial American ally over the course of the past four years, which has worked in Beijing’s favour and has coincided with its own increasingly robust economic and diplomatic rise through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing is strong enough to withstand the negative impacts of the trade war and the ongoing war of words with Washington. However, it is arguable whether it can withstand the resumption of strong bilateral relations between America and its allies. For the past four years, Beijing has had the luxury of watching a fractured, inconsistent, and ununified approach to the West’s relations with China, and has been able to pursue its global agenda with the knowledge that the West was too splintered to strenuously object or take meaningful action to counter Beijing’s various gambits. That is why it was able, over the past decade for example, to expropriate the Spratly and Paracel Islands with little more than a whisper from the West.

Under a Biden administration, that would presumably change. Biden has existing relationships with many of the world’s leaders, but equally importantly, he understands that to counter Beijing, the West and America’s allies need to speak with one voice and be willing to act in unison. That will never happen under a Trump administration and Beijing knows it.

Although many Americans see the forthcoming election as a choice between two unsavoury and undesirable individuals—or even between the lesser of two evils—for Beijing, the stakes are similar. Except that no matter which of them ultimately becomes President, Beijing loses. Either it will have to endure four more years of thrashing under Trump or it is likely to see the West circle its wagons to respond with muscularity against Beijing’s attempt to build an alternative world order that is not governed by Western nations and the institutions they created over the past 70 years, but rather, the Chinese Communist Party’s own vision of itself.

There is one other important reason why Beijing may also prefer Trump: he has been extremely useful in enabling the CCP to whip up nationalism among the Chinese people and tighten its grip on power. With Biden at the helm, America will no longer be so easily portrayed as evil by the Party. The Chinese people would likely come to believe that a more sensible, reasonable person is leading America. Biden’s election would also enable a door toward reconciliation to be cracked open. That ought to be an objective both Beijing and Washington can agree on.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the new book “The Chinese Vortex”.

 

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