US President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China Image Credit: NYT

There is a long history of American presidential candidates using China as a campaign cudgel — from Bill Clinton blasting President George H.W. Bush in 1992 for dealing with a Chinese premier known as the “Butcher of Beijing” to Donald Trump’s 2016 attack that the Obama administration had allowed China to “rape” the United States while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

This election year, China-bashing will reach a new level, as Trump seeks to capitalise on high voter disapproval of China, Beijing’s failure to contain the coronavirus and persistent bilateral tensions between our countries.

Desperate to obscure the reality of more than 93,000 American deaths and 36 million unemployed amid Trump’s utterly incompetent handling of the pandemic, Republicans have no better strategy than to play the China card.

Trump’s penchant for projecting his personal failings onto others is one of his most familiar and ploys — whether the subject is corruption, nepotism or Russian interference in the 2016 election, as with so-called Obamagate


The Republicans are executing a 57-page campaign memo that recommends branding opponents “soft on China” and reveals their rationale for repeated refrains of the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan lab.”

For Trump, attacking former Vice President Joe Biden on China serves three purposes: to dampen turnout among populist Democrats; to deflect blame for his deadly mishandling of the coronavirus for which he takes no “responsibility at all”; and most cynically, to try to turn his own blatant weakness on China into a political weapon.

Trump’s penchant for projecting his personal failings onto others is one of his most familiar and ploys — whether the subject is corruption, nepotism or Russian interference in the 2016 election, as with so-called Obamagate.

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Trump's record on China

On China, Trump has much to fear from his own record.

To preserve his prized “Phase One” trade deal, which failed to change China’s unfair trading practices after a costly tariff war, Trump downplayed the risk of the coronavirus and heaped praise on President Xi Jinping. Fifteen times in January and February, Trump lauded Xi’s leadership on Covid-19.

He fawned, “on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi,” and insisted that “they are doing a very professional job,” despite strong evidence of China’s deceptive handling of the virus.

Since early in his presidency, Trump has repeatedly kowtowed to Xi, gushing about his becoming “president for life” and proclaiming that his “respect and friendship with President Xi is unlimited.”

More dangerously, Trump’s policies have strengthened China at America’s expense. By antagonising America’s Asian and European partners, he has lent impetus to China’s long-standing goal of rupturing US alliances, which constrain China’s global ambitions.

By withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has left friends and foes alike to doubt American resolve, while ceding to China the mantle of steadfast global leader.

Trump’s refusal even to criticise China’s egregious abuses along with his attacks on the American press and failure to condemn China’s expulsion of American journalists, have combined to grant Xi a free pass and spotlight Trump’s abandonment of American moral leadership.

By undermining the United Nations system, Trump has left an international leadership vacuum that China is rushing to fill. Witness Xi’s announcement at the World Health Assembly that China will provide $2 billion to help nations confront Covid-19 and share any vaccine it develops.

By contrast, Trump tweeted a letter slamming China and threatening to withdraw from the World Health Organisation.

Strategic imperatives

On strategic imperatives, Trump allowed China to ease pressure on North Korea and failed to counter China’s cyberaggression and expansionism in the South China Sea. Given such a self-serving legacy, it will take some truly Trumpian tactics to tar Joe Biden with being weak on China. In reality, the opposite is true, and Biden can use the president’s record against him.

Starting in January, Biden warned starkly of the dangers of the coronavirus and in February insisted that China be more transparent and admit US scientists, stressing that (unlike Trump), “I would not be taking China’s word when it comes to the coronavirus.”

Biden directly confronted Xi, stressing that US warplanes would flout China’s unilaterally declared air defence zone and back America’s Asian allies against Chinese pressure. Biden also effectively pressed Chinese officials to halt cyber property theft, increase pressure on North Korea, float its currency and reduce barriers to US trade and investment.

Lacking any sense of irony, Trump will run his standard play — trying to deflect responsibility for his monumental failings by projecting onto Biden his own weakness on China. Trump seemingly will do anything to win in November, and his China gambit may prove to be the least of it.

Still, campaigning on China, while a well-worn strategy, is particularly dangerous in these tense times when it fuels anti-Asian hostility at home and anti-American sentiment abroad, makes governing more difficult and raises the prospect of a costly Cold War — or worse.

Susan E. Rice was the 24th US national security adviser