Published: 17:51, May 26, 2024
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US election again makes China a punching bag
By Liu Ningrong

The Biden administration, as expected, has announced tough tariff hikes on various products imported from China, including electric vehicles, advanced batteries, solar cells, steel, aluminum and medical equipment. This latest round of trade tensions between the United States and China comes amid a closely contested race between President Joe Biden and his predecessor, former Republican president Donald Trump.

China has long been a whipping boy in US presidential elections, with candidates using China as a political punching bag to score points with voters. This trend can be traced back to as early as the Reagan-Bush ticket in 1980. Presidential challengers often distance themselves from the incumbent’s policies toward China, only to adopt a more conciliatory approach once they assume office. This pattern has continued with subsequent administrations.

However, unlike in the past, when the incumbents often defended their China-friendly policies, the current administration has taken a tougher stance against China. This shift began four years ago when Trump and Biden were vying for the White House.

This time around, Biden has emphasized his tough stance on China to secure support in the industrial states of the Midwest, which are crucial battleground states in the upcoming election. Both Biden and Trump are competing to demonstrate who can take a stronger stance against China.

Biden’s approach of taking a tough stance against China in hopes of making political gains does carry risks. It could potentially escalate tensions between the world’s two largest economies and lead to a prolonged period of economic conflict. While the current tariffs may have a limited impact on trade, a wave of new and heightened tariffs could exacerbate the situation.

Looking ahead to the November election, it is likely that both presidential candidates will continue to use tougher language to accuse China of “unfair competition” and “job theft”, among other issues. The anti-China rhetoric is expected to intensify on the campaign trail. While both candidates may adopt a containment tone toward China, the difference lies in their temperament and approach.

For China, this is a contest between a levelheaded hard-liner and an unpredictable pragmatist. This will significantly impact the future of Sino-US relations, where competitive coexistence may be the only viable scenario for the next 50 years. Why is the strained relationship likely to persist for half a century?

In this new era of “semi-globalization”, all aspects of trade and investment flows, currency exchange and the operations of multinational corporations are expected to be subject to geopolitical considerations

In US presidential election politics, the issues of engagement or containment have been repeatedly brought up. The US engagement policy toward China has evolved over time, starting with Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and continuing through the Clinton administration’s support for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

However, this policy of engagement has been challenged in recent years, particularly during the 2016 presidential election, when Trump accused China of “unfair” trade practices.

The hostile rhetoric in the current US presidential election reflects the reality of the geopolitical landscape. It is unrealistic to assume that this trend will not have damaging ramifications for bilateral relations. The US and China will continue to compete for dominance in various areas, such as trade, technology, military and regional influence. This competition is likely to involve the use of sanctions and tariffs as tools to gain an advantage.

Consequently, the trade war, tech war and economic war between the two nations will be a dominant trend for the next five decades, which I have referred to as the “semi-Cold War”. Both countries are competing for the top position of economic power, which may switch between the US and China for an extended period in terms of total GDP output.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has symbolically marked the end of the post-Cold War era of globalization, which started in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and lasted for 30 years. This era was characterized by political, economic, technological and cultural exchanges that made the world increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

Looking ahead, the post-COVID-19 era of globalization is expected to last at least another 30 years and will likely be marked by increased polarization and the formation of alliances between nations to bolster their positions. The US has already initiated a chip war by forming an alliance with Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands to advance semiconductor technology and limit China’s access to this critical industry.

In this new era of “semi-globalization”, all aspects of trade and investment flows, currency exchange and the operations of multinational corporations are expected to be subject to geopolitical considerations.

The weaponization of tariffs and sanctions has led to the breakdown of global economic governance, with the US impeding any adjudication within the WTO and disregarding its commitments to the global trade organization. This trend could result in a more fragmented and disorderly global order, with powerful nations unilaterally making and breaking rules as they see fit.

The US’ refusal to comply with a WTO ruling in 2022 is an example. The judges found that the US’ requirement for goods from Hong Kong to be labeled as “Made in China” violated its commitments to the global trade organization. This has undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the WTO as a global forum for resolving trade disputes. While Washington’s imposition of unilateral tariffs risks tarnishing its image as a champion of free trade, Beijing has also faced criticism for its compliance with WTO obligations.

The ongoing White House race has thrust China into the spotlight, with the contest dominated by heated rhetoric and intense actions surrounding the nation. The China factor has undeniably become a significant aspect of American politics, with presidential candidates actively invoking China anxiety. This has the potential to hinder politicians’ ability to formulate measured and thoughtful responses to the complex challenges faced by both nations. The implications of such rhetoric are far-reaching, requiring astute management and strategic foresight to prevent an escalation that could spiral out of control.

As this contest unfolds, it is crucial to recognize that the implications of the Sino-US relationship extend far beyond the boundaries of the two nations, affecting the global order as a whole. Navigating the intricate dynamics of this superpower rivalry demands careful consideration. It is essential to ensure that actions taken are in the best interests of both countries and the wider international community.

The author is associate vice-president of the University of Hong Kong, and the founding director of the HKU Institute for China Business.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.