BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – Mr Donald Trump has argued frequently of late that China is rooting for Mr Joe Biden come November’s US presidential election. In Beijing, however, officials have come around to support four more years of Mr Trump.
Interviews with nine current and former Chinese officials point to a shift in sentiment in favour of the sitting president even though he has spent much of the past four years blaming Beijing for everything from US trade imbalances to Covid-19.
The chief reason? A belief that the benefit of the erosion of America’s post-war alliance network would outweigh any damage to China from continued trade disputes and geopolitical instability.
While the officials shared concerns that US-China tensions would rise regardless of who was in the White House, they broke largely into camps of those who emphasised geopolitical gains and those who were concerned about trade ties.
Mr Biden, the former vice-president, was viewed as a traditional Democrat who would seek to shore up the US’s tattered multilateral relationships and tamp down trade frictions.
“If Biden is elected, I think this could be more dangerous for China because he will work with allies to target China, whereas Trump is destroying US alliances,” said Mr Zhou Xiaoming, a former Chinese trade negotiator and former deputy representative in Geneva.
Four current officials echoed that sentiment, saying many in the Chinese government believed a Trump victory could help Beijing by weakening what they saw as Washington’s greatest asset for checking China’s widening influence.
The general assumption underlying their views was that little could be done to halt the slide in relations between the world’s two biggest economies. Thus, China needed to accelerate efforts to develop high-end indigenous industries, expand into developing markets and look for opportunities to work with nations in Europe and Asia to counter any US isolation efforts.
Over the course of Mr Trump’s term, the realisation has taken hold in Beijing that opposition to China enjoys deep bipartisan support in an otherwise-polarised Washington. The coronavirus outbreak, which was first discovered in the country’s central city of Wuhan, has only hardened American views towards Beijing.
“I don’t think the election will change the relationship in a fundamental way. The deep feeling in the US is that the US should contain China,” Mr Zhou said. “Whether Trump wins, or Joe goes to Washington, things will get worse.”
Chinese officials, eager to avoid a repeat of their surprise when Mr Trump upset former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2016, have been pressing American contacts for insights about who will win.
Senior members of the American business community in Beijing say recent weeks have seen a sudden up tick in outreach from well-connected Chinese friends who in some cases have not contacted them for years.
Although Republicans traditionally emphasised economic ties with China, Mr Trump has moved the party in a more confrontational direction, challenging the country in virtually every area of the relationship from China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to trade, public health, human rights and technology.
The Democrats have largely supported those efforts, helping to pass legislation to support Hong Kong protesters and give more military aid to Taiwan.
Even Mr Biden, who had long backed an “engagement” strategy with China, adopted a harsher tone as the Democratic presidential primaries heated up.
In recent months, Mr Biden has described Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug”, lauded the “extraordinary bravery” of democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong and accused China of “predatory” trade practices.
He labelled the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in the far Western region of Xinjiang “unconscionable”.
Although Chinese officials continue to steer clear of criticising Mr Trump directly, Internet censors have allowed more nationalistic-tinged criticism of the United States to circulate online.
One foreign diplomat said China’s foreign ministry was “combative” and “angry” towards US officials.
“Trump has destroyed a lot of goodwill,” said Mr Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation.
“At the start of the trade war, there were a lot of people who were pro-US, but they are now sympathetic to the hard-liners.”
Mr Trump has sought to capitalise on his reputation for confronting China in the election, despite his early praise for Mr Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
In April, he told Reuters that “China will do anything they can to have me lose this race”, asserting without evidence that Beijing’s response to the virus was focused on a desire to see him lose in November.
China’s foreign ministry reiterated its longstanding position that it never seeks to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
One Chinese official said the election result did not matter since relations will not improve either way. China’s best hope, they said, was that things did not deteriorate further.
Some in Beijing are wondering aloud about Mr Trump’s long-term impact on US stability, pointing to surging coronavirus cases, protests against police discrimination and speculation about whether the pandemic election might end in chaos.
“The US as we know it may no longer exist,” said Mr Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and interpreter for Deng Xiaoping.
Mr Trump’s “America First” policies have created similar frictions in capitals that have traditionally been friendlier to the US, as he levies tariffs on key trading partners, presses allies for greater spending on collective defence, withdraws from multilateral agreements and supports Britain’s break from the Europe Union.
Chinese officials privately acknowledge that a Democratic administration might prove more formidable if it worked with allies to present a united front.
Even if a Biden presidency proved more difficult for Beijing, two current Chinese officials said he might open up more areas for cooperation such as restoring US participation in the Paris climate deal – negotiated while he was vice-president under then-President Barack Obama.
“He supports working on topics like climate change, WTO reform and TPP,” said Mr Wang. “There are areas where we can cooperate.”
On a more personal level, some Chinese officials involved in trade negotiations with the Trump administration support a Biden victory simply so they can spend more time with their families, according to one person familiar with their thinking.
China’s trade team shows up to work looking exhausted, the person said.
Both sides may find it difficult to escape the pattern of confrontation no matter who wins.
Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is still detained in Canada awaiting a decision on a US extradition request, while Beijing’s plan to impose a security law on Hong Kong has caused outrage in Congress and brought the countries’ “phase one” trade deal into question.
“Nowadays in China people are becoming more and more clear about the US’ objectives,” said Mr Zhou, the former Chinese representative in Geneva. “We have not yet reached the darkest hour in the relationship.”