China: Tiptoeing Around Trump

Published on November 30, 2020

The US Congress and the administration of President Donald Trump have been ratcheting up the pressure on China as their respective terms draw to a close: the House of Representatives is expected to fast track a bipartisan bill after it reconvenes this Wednesday that mirrors the Senate’s Kennedy-Van Hollen bill passed in May restricting investment in companies that do not adhere to US PCAOB auditing standards, and the White House is preparing to blacklist a number of additional Chinese companies with ties to the military that includes the oil giant CNOOC and semiconductor manufacturer SMIC.

*** Beijing, however, will respond to these escalations with extreme restraint as it looks ahead to a de-escalation in tensions with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, while keeping a wary eye on the outgoing President Trump, who Beijing fully expects to run again in 2024 and to continue to exert tremendous influence on US politics even after he leaves office in January. ***

A Kushner-Cui Meeting

Last week, Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law, met with China’s Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, in a meeting that was originally scheduled for before the November 3 presidential elections. After apologizing for the multiple delays, Kushner, according to sources in Beijing, conveyed a message from President Trump to Ambassador Cui.

The President, Kushner relayed, has always cherished his personal friendship with China’s President Xi Jinping, and would like to maintain that good relationship in the future. While fighting for America’s interests, Trump has never seen China as an enemy. “If” this election is lost, Kushner continued, Trump will certainly run for president again in 2024, and has great confidence in his ability to win.

As a small token to emphasize that goodwill, after the Cui-Kushner meeting, and despite the very public ratcheting up of pressure on Beijing, our understanding is that the Trump administration quietly conveyed to Beijing that it would “postpone” a trip to Taiwan that was scheduled for early December by Andrew Wheeler, a Trump ally and head of the Environmental Protective Agency, due to “pressing priorities” back home.

In the assessment of Cui and the Chinese Embassy, as reported back to Beijing, Kushner did not seem “crestfallen or discouraged,” and that Trump’s participation in the 2024 election is “cast in stone.” Either way, with the vast majority of 74 million voters still personally loyal to him, they believe it will be impossible for the Republican party to regain the White House without Trump’s support, with major implications for China.

Managing a Tricky Transition

As would be expected, Cui and the Chinese Embassy have also been in close contact with the team of President-elect Joe Biden.

On the afternoon the US federal government recognized Biden as the “apparent winner” of the presidential election, Cui called Anthony Blinken to congratulate him on his nomination to the position of Secretary of State, and to relay that President Xi would be reaching out to congratulate Biden personally soon as well.

From what we understand, both Cui and Blinken also considered arranging a more substantive phone call between Xi and Biden before his inauguration on January 20. Sources caution, however, that Beijing will be hesitant to needlessly provoke Trump with such a call in his last days in office.

Looking ahead, Beijing expects the Biden administration’s first priorities to be on domestic affairs, such as on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, restoring the economy, dealing with racial injustice and climate change.

Regarding China, as one senior source says, “the familiar faces in Biden’s foreign affairs and national security team are likely to take a more pragmatic and rational approach… [But while] Biden and his administration will tend to see China as a strategic competitor rather than an all-out enemy, they will not eradicate the core issues with China, especially on sensitive issues such as Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, Hong Kong, and human rights…and will seek alliances to contain China’ influence in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

Pointing out again the almost 74 million votes that were cast for Trump even in defeat, the source goes on to caution that in Beijing’s view, “the severe polarization [in the US] will pose a considerable challenge for Biden…and the rancor of domestic anti-globalization voices and populism are still alive in the US. Their influence,” he predicts, “will be revealed in the next midterm election in 2022 and presidential election in 2024, [and in the meantime] Republican forces remain robust in Congress.”

All that said, with China-US bilateral relations having hit four-decade lows under the Trump administration, even a slight relaxation would be of great significance to both countries. To that, officials relay that Beijing will be ready to resume dialogue with the US as soon as possible after Biden takes office in January.

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