President Donald Trump is the only person who can take on China, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday – a preview of what is emerging as a significant foreign policy issue this election cycle.
Relations with Beijing have plummeted during Trump’s time in office, with a trade war, tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, and angry denunciations coming from each side. Yet China’s leaders don’t have many fans on the other side of the aisle either, and if anything, it looks like the main point of contention on this issue between Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden will be who is tougher on China.
In a video controversially recorded while on a diplomatic trip to the Middle East and North Africa, Pompeo said Trump has “pulled back the curtain on the predatory aggression of the Chinese Communist Party” and “held China accountable” for covering up the “China virus” – a reference to Trump’s repeated accusations that Beijing is ultimately to blame for the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the US, killing nearly 180,000 Americans and causing widespread economic misery that could tank Trump’s reelection chances.
Trump has already said that if he wins a second term, one of his priorities will be to “end our reliance on China.”
“China will own the United States if this election is lost by Donald Trump,” Trump, referring to himself in the third person, said earlier this month. “If I don’t win the election, China will own the United States. You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.”
While opinion in China is split on whether Biden – who could take a more measured approach, if not one exactly sympathetic to Beijing – is preferable to a second Trump term, the very idea that it could be an election issue is deeply undesirable for the country’s leaders.
“Certain US politicians are working to suppress China because they fear China’s growth,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week, adding that “the harder they strike, the more it proves how successful China is on the right path.”
Speaking in Italy on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said any move towards “a new Cold War” would reverse the course of history and “kidnap the whole world.” Wang is touring Europe to shore up relations on the continent, following a recent trip by Pompeo designed to build an anti-China alliance.
Pompeo has long been a figure of loathing in Chinese state media, but there is no guarantee him being removed from office would necessarily improve matters for Beijing.
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans in both parties “now see China much more negatively than in the recent past,” with 83% of Republicans surveyed saying they have a unfavorable view of the country. According to Pew, while Republicans have long been suspicious of Beijing, Democrats in recent years have also become more suspicious – 68% of supporters surveyed said they viewed China unfavorably – so there is growing consensus on the issue.
That’s largely reflected by the two candidates, even if Trump is considerably louder in his condemnations. Though Biden only mentioned China once in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, he has repeatedly denounced Trump for being weak on China. He’s called Xi a “thug” and his campaign ads have claimed Trump hasn’t held China accountable for the spread of the pandemic, amid suggestions Chinese officials covered up the initial outbreak.
Yet elections aren’t usually won on issues upon which both parties broadly agree, and such general antipathy could actually benefit China if it makes the country a boring topic of debate. In a piece published in the Chinese state-run Global Times this week, the tabloid claimed that “hyping sinophobia is getting less and less effective to draw support for Donald Trump, and the Republicans have failed to attract more swing voters.”
Polling shows the coronavirus is the top issue in the US election, superseding all else – and some in Beijing may hope it drowns out Pompeo and Trump’s attempts to make China a major topic.
At the same time, a focus on the coronavirus could also give the President plenty of ammunition to go after China, particularly as Pew found that 78% of Americans “place a great deal or fair amount of the blame for the global spread of the coronavirus on the Chinese government’s initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.”
Beijing would rather not be a topic in this conversation at all, but Pompeo’s speech shows that he and other Republicans are keen to make it a major election issue. China’s leaders will be watching Trump’s own convention address closely later this week.
CNN’s Selina Wang contributed reporting.