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Why China may want a second Trump term

In some ways, the Trump presidency has been a gift for China.

President Donald Trump meeting with China's President Xi Jinping
President Donald Trump meeting with China's President Xi Jinping at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Does China want to see four more years of Donald Trump?

It’s early to be asking that question, but it has to be on the minds of President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. We know it’s on Trump’s mind because he’s already made the self-satisfied argument that China wants him gone. And because of China’s willingness to play hardball on trade, it’s becoming a matter of urgency for U.S. farmers.  

In some ways, the Trump presidency has been a gift for China. Trump’s lack of interest in human rights has helped China limit outside pressure over its worsening authoritarian streak. His inability to provide global leadership makes China look better to many countries than it otherwise might. His approach to North Korea has given China a chance to patch up relationships with Kim Jong Un with an eye toward weakening the U.S. in East Asia. 

But all that matters less than keeping the economy on track. Sustained growth is the foundation of China’s domestic stability and external power. China also prizes predictability, which makes economic planning easier and helps avoid potentially dangerous surprises in big power relationships. Tariffs do hurt the Chinese economy. Predictability, of course, is utterly lacking in this president. So it’s not such a clear-cut calculation. And naturally, China will be keeping an eye on the alternatives, too.

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That U.S. farmers are pawns in the trade fight between China and the United States was made even clearer this past week when China announced it would stop buying U.S. agricultural products in retaliation for Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on more Chinese goods.

For Trump, it’s clear that China would prefer to wait out the trade dispute and hope a Democrat win in 2020 so they could continue to rip off the United States like they’ve been doing for the last 25 years.” 

Trump also accused China of meddling in the 2018 election. He never provided any evidence, and the claim probably was nothing more than a distraction from his unwillingness to confront Russia. U.S. experts say China could follow Russia’s example and interfere in 2020, but they appear divided on whether it would take that step. 

In any case, if you define interfering in an election broadly enough to include policy decisions on issues such as trade, rather than hacking emails, penetrating voting systems and deceptive social media campaigns, then perhaps China is meddling. Even then, probably not.  

It makes more sense to think of China’s decision to stop buying U.S. farm products as a short-term pressure tactic that everyone understands might eventually influence the election. If China can take actions that threaten Trump’s re-election, perhaps it can push him to accept a few concessions and declare victory. That requires, among other things, maintaining pressure on farmers in states Trump needs to win.

While prospects for a compromise look dim right now, things can change in a hurry. North Korea’s Kim and others have learned not to take Trump’s harsh rhetoric at face value, and we have a far-from-perfect understanding of China’s take on the problem. If the two sides eventually strike a deal both leaders can sell back home, the trade war recedes for the election season – and perhaps all those things China likes about Trump come to the fore again. 

Xi does have other big problems that require his attention: finessing a solution to unrest in Hong Kong, fraught relations with ethnic minorities and even an outbreak of African swine fever that reminds people of authorities’ tendency to hide the scope of problems and reinforces doubts about the entire system. The disease is one reason food prices are rising rapidly

The biggest issue is an economic slowdown that would be going on regardless of the trade spat with the United States. It’s a result of factors including an aging population, rising wages, debt, and a slowing of construction as an engine of growth. Chinese officials long have spoken of a need to reorient their economy toward domestic consumption, which means slower, more stable growth. But faced with an actual slowdown, China has once again eased credit.

China will also be keeping an eye on the free-for-all among the Democrats running for president. If nothing else, Trump’s presidency may help reset the baseline in U.S. politics in favor of a tougher approach toward China, for which important elements within the Democratic Party long have advocated. For their own reasons, many Democratic candidates also share Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, either the original or renegotiated version. They may cite the effects of such global trade agreements on labor, but in doing so they also lose leverage over China. 

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Overall, some details of U.S. trade policy toward China would change, and it almost certainly would be more careful and consistent. But the thrust of it might not be so different. 

You can count on China to be pragmatic. How damaging are these trade spats? What’s more important, consistency or familiarity? Trump is a known quantity. Even if re-elected, he probably still would be hobbled by investigations and threats of impeachment. Most administrations also lose steam by the middle of their second term. It wouldn’t be crazy for China to conclude that makes him the better choice.