Trump and Biden have one thing in common, both men must use China to win but each one is doing it differently.

The U.S. and China have shared a volatile relationship for many years, which has been defined by their economic interdependence, as well as a general scepticism over their respective goals.

Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and China was strained as Trump, and many in the Republican Party, accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of mishandling the situation. This censure was also upheld by the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. As both presidential contenders continue campaigning, their mobilisation of U.S. policy towards China has allowed them to stir up jingoistic sentiments in a bid to gain electoral support.


Scepticism following the outbreak of Covid-19

Trump’s presidency has been marked partly by his brazen stance towards the Eastern superpower. However, the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan gave Washington a legitimised opportunity to highlight the fallacies of the CCP, and their handling of the virus. This condemnation had a bipartisan consensus, which united both the Republican and Democratic party in their adversarial stance towards China.

Tensions increased when Trump took to a public forum to call Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’, a name that many other Republicans latched onto. Senator Tom Cotton even speculated, without evidence, that the CCP had created the virus as a bio-weapon. Their rhetorical blueprint was riddled with jingoism; from calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Kung Flu’, the administration capitalised on existing Sinophobia to blame a perceived ‘Other’ and alleviate responsibility for their own mishandling of the situation.

The Chinese government undoubtedly needs to be held accountable for their incompetencies in controlling the outbreak. However, by politicising the ethnic dimension of the virus, Trump and his aides subordinated the more culpable bureaucratic fallacies that propelled its spread. Nevertheless, equally quick to jump on this jingoistic bandwagon was Joe Biden. In his anti-Trump election advert, Biden accused Trump of ‘rolling over for the Chinese’, ostensibly using the same anti-China rhetoric that he condemned his opponent for. Trump retaliated by claiming Americans would have to ‘learn to speak Chinese’ if he was not re-elected. This exchange highlights the way in which a promised assertiveness towards China has become a key element of their presidential campaigns.

Trump vs Biden: Taking a hardline stance?

Nevertheless, Trump had earlier praised the Chinese government’s efforts in containing Covid-19, yet sharply swerved from this stance when the US saw an exponential rise in cases. In weaponizing these hostile sentiments, both Biden and Trump are wrangling to raise their public approval ratings before the election. Recently, Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, took a notably hawkish stance against China when he said that ‘America and its allies must push China to change’. Despite this, there is little to suggest that Trump has actually ‘pushed China to change’. His inconsistent track record with Xi is a testament to his inability to implement an emphatic stance in practice. In 2017, Trump recollected his ‘great chemistry’ with President Xi Jinping in a bid to smooth bilateral relations. Moreover, his lack of empathy towards China’s human rights violations of its Uighur community has sparked an outrage from human rights groups. He even admitted that the treatment of the Uighur population ‘was not of primary concern’.

Therefore, while Trump is masquerading with an ostensibly hawkish stance on China, in practice, he has been fairly passive. One of the reasons for this is the economic implications of cutting ties with China, which is a regional hegemony. Imposing sanctions on China would jeopardise any mutually beneficial trade deals between the two countries. Even though they have been engaged in diplomatic tensions before, they are economically interdependent on each other, as China is reliant on American demand. While Trump has invoked the ‘China card’ to ignite any nationalistic sentiment from his voter base, the extent to which he wants to confront the Eastern power is questionable.

Until now, U.S. policy towards China has been comprised of ‘pathos, lies and contradictions’. Biden’s policies may appear to be an interruption of this trend. Biden promises to propel his values of liberal internationalism, which imply peaceful transnational trade negotiations, as well as an ostensible protection of human rights and state sovereignty. Yet, unlike Trump, Biden appears to have reconciled some of these values in his critique of the CCP. His criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighurs was diametrically opposed to Trump’s active apathy on the matter, and more significantly, Biden took to a public platform to congratulate Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on her reelection. His style of leadership has taken a less brash approach to scrutinising the Chinese government, instead choosing to express solidarity with America’s opponents.

The electoral factor

The pandemic exacerbated a growing distrust of China in both partisan circles, which has also extended to the public sphere. Over 64 per cent of Americans who were questioned believed that China had done a bad job of containing Covid-19, and 57 per cent regarded China as a competitor. With negative sentiments towards China surging in recent months, it is clear why both Trump and Biden have capitalised on their electorate’s fears, in an attempt to sway voters in their own respective direction.

As the presidential election looms closer, Biden has taken a clear stance in being the ‘anti-Trump’. While in practice, Trump’s repudiation against China did not amount to much in sanctions, it stirred a wave of heightened patriotism. Biden’s approach to China may therefore be marked more by caution than antagonism, especially if he wants to uphold his key values of liberal internationalism. As both contenders battle for presidency, one thing is clear — China is a key player in their political playing field.