Opinion: Three reasons China would be happier with Trump than Biden

The month after former President Trump left office in 2021, Matt Pottinger, who had been the point man for China on Trump’s National Security Council, told me in an interview that had Trump stayed on for a second term, he might have moved to a “wholesale decoupling” of the U.S. economy from China.

Yet John Bolton, who served as Trump’s third national security advisor, predicted in early 2021 that if Trump had been reelected, he “might have careened back to bromance and a disastrous trade deal [with China], just for starters.”

Those conflicting statements point to Trump’s unpredictability on China. They also raise the question of how Chinese President Xi Jinping and his aides are viewing the 2024 American election and the possibility of another Trump presidency.

In this country, a false logic has taken hold. Trump talks tough about China, and he promises a wave of new tariffs on imports. Therefore, the thinking goes, China must not want Trump to return to the White House; Xi would favor the reelection of President Biden.

That conclusion is wrong. China not only isn’t worried about the prospect of a second Trump presidency, it would choose it over a continuation of Biden and the Democrats.

First, Trump is precisely the sort of leader China knows how to deal with. He has a huge ego and thinks only he can resolve problems through deals he thinks only he can make. Remember: Trump believed he alone could get North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons program by meeting with its leader, Kim Jong Un. His clumsy efforts at deal-making brought forth lots of drama and no results.

China has a history of dealing with powerful officials through flattery, personal relationships and financial rewards. Chinese leaders prefer such officials to those who are preoccupied with impersonal rules or laws.

During Trump’s presidency, we saw China working these levers. With the help of real estate deals and trademark grants, the Chinese forged connections with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Chinese officials also spent millions of dollars at Trump’s hotel properties. Such efforts would no doubt revive in a second Trump presidency.

Trump supporters will point out that Biden’s son Hunter has also done business with China, trading on his father’s name and power. But Hunter’s business interests were penny-ante compared with Trump Inc.’s, and no one has turned up convincing evidence that Joe Biden benefited from his family’s foreign dealings.

Beyond the appeal of Trump’s egomania, Beijing would see his foreign policy aims as a big improvement over Biden’s.

China’s principal geopolitical concern these days is heading off the series of alliances and partnerships the Biden administration has pulled together in response to its policies. The president has strengthened U.S. ties with Japan, South Korea and Australia; announced new U.S. bases in the Philippines; enhanced bilateral cooperation with Vietnam; and recruited European nations to help counter China on trade, technology and sanctions.

Trump, on the other hand, was scornful of American alliances in his first term, and he has been even more so in his recent campaign statements, questioning America’s NATO obligations, supporting an end to Ukraine aid and offering words of praise for authoritarian leaders such as Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, who was at Mar-a-Lago on Friday.

Most importantly, Trump promises a new, warmer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom China forged a “no-limits” partnership in 2022. If Trump is reelected, he might even lift sanctions against Russia.

From China’s perspective, an America separating itself from its allies and moving closer to Russia would be ideal. An America in retreat from the world stage gives ample room for China to project its international ambitions.

Finally, China understands that it is a Democratic not a Republican administration that will more likely act tough rather than merely talk tough.

It’s true that while Trump was in the White House, the U.S. shifted away from a policy of engagement and began to treat China as the geopolitical and commercial adversary it had become. But that might well have happened under any president, given the underlying factors: China’s aggressive actions overseas and the U.S. business community’s growing dissatisfaction with China’s commercial spying and theft of intellectual property.

Trump was willing to impose tariffs on China although his predecessors were not. But Biden not only continued those tariffs, he imposed new technology trade restrictions that went well beyond anything Trump did to challenge the Chinese — notably, he imposed limits in 2022 that he tightened a year later on China’s access to semiconductors and chip-making equipment. Such efforts seem likely to continue if the Democrats keep the White House.

And there’s this: Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods were groundbreaking, but it is less well remembered that he also entered into a trade deal with China — “It just doesn’t get any bigger than this,” he boasted — that proved unsuccessful. In exchange for modest cuts in the tariffs Trump had imposed, China pledged to buy $200 million in American exports. The Chinese never came close to keeping that promise.

Based on his track record, it seems fair to predict that if Trump returned to the White House, he would start out with bombastic rhetoric against China. Then, with an emphasis on personalized diplomacy, he might look for another trade deal he could tout, no matter its real results.

Trump’s promises to weaken U.S. relations with its allies, his egocentric approach to diplomacy and his propensity to over-hype and under-deliver would only make it easier for Beijing to realize its global ambitions.

China doesn’t fear Trump. It relishes the prospect of his return to the presidency.

James Mann, author of three books on the U.S. relationship with China, is a member of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.