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Biden or Trump? China can’t pick its ‘poison’ to mend strained ties.

BEIJING — In the United States, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have launched presidential campaigns focused on how different they and their leadership styles are. But China sees very little contrast between the two of them.

Nearly every Chinese foreign policy expert agrees that neither is a great option for Beijing. Whether these experts, when pressed, pick Trump or Biden as the better of bad options often comes down to how salvageable or dispensable they consider China’s difficult relationship with the United States.

“Biden and Trump are like two bowls of poison for China,” said Zhao Minghao, a professor at Fudan University’s Center for American Studies. “No matter who comes to power, the pressure on China will continue to exist.” Relations are in a “structural and chronic depression,” he added.

Beijing fears that a Trump win on Nov. 5 would result in an all-out trade war — extending the one Trump launched in his first term — and derail its efforts to put a sluggish economy back on track.

But a Biden reelection, while offering continuity, would come with trade-offs for the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term goals of remolding the international order to its advantage. The likely diplomatic chaos of a second Trump term could provide another opportunity for China to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies.

Either way, the U.S. election is fueling the Chinese leadership’s deep dislike of instability.

“We don’t like uncertainty,” said Wang Yiwei, vice president of the Academy of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era at Renmin University. But for those in China who see relations with the United States as a contest, Wang added, Trump can “do more harm to the American system than to the current international system,” which remains by and large beneficial to China.

Xi Jinping, the powerful Chinese leader, regularly warns about “high winds and choppy waters” in a world of “changes unseen in a century” that threaten goals of national revival.

Chief among those sources of turbulence is China’s fraught relationship with the United States. Frustration with Washington and its allies was a clear undercurrent during the annual eight-day meeting of the top leadership that concluded in Beijing on Monday.

On the sidelines of the event, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, accused Washington of “constantly renovating its methods of suppressing China” and targeting Beijing with “bewildering” levels of recrimination.

Chinese officials have been careful to avoid openly favoring a U.S. presidential candidate for fear of accusations of election interference, but few Chinese foreign affairs experts see ties between the countries improving dramatically under either Biden or Trump.

Instead, the election is often cast here as being inherently destabilizing for China, regardless of who wins.

The American election is China’s largest external threat in 2024, the Center for International Security and Strategy, a think tank at prestigious Tsinghua University, concluded in a recent report.

Candidates “acting tough” on China throughout the campaign would almost certainly undermine the positive momentum of a meeting between Xi and Biden in San Francisco late last year that was aimed at stabilizing relations, in part because Beijing’s meddling has “already been treated as a fact that doesn’t need verification,” the report said.

A recent U.S. intelligence report said China, having improved its capabilities in covert influence operations and disinformation, may attempt to interfere in U.S. elections this year “because of its desire to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. societal divisions.”

For China’s leaders, whether Trump or Biden would better serve Beijing’s interests is a question of tactics: How can Beijing best take on its main rival?

Xi has made clear his ambition for China to play a leading role in shaping global affairs. But the Chinese foreign policy establishment remains torn about whether Beijing should directly and immediately challenge the leadership of the United States for a shot at supremacy.

Theories of American decay have taken hold among many Chinese nationalists, who are increasingly convinced that China’s time is now.

They are impatient with the American-led world order and often support Trump because they believe his return would undercut Washington’s international standing and create an opening for Beijing to extend its influence into the vacuum left by an inward-turning United States.

These nationalists like to call him “chuan jianguo” — “Trump the nation builder” — where the nation in question is China. For these sarcastic fans, Trump’s trade policies backfired and spurred on Chinese patriotism and efforts to become “self-reliant” in core technologies such as semiconductors.

On Chinese social media, videos of Trump mocking Biden are among the most-watched clips about the U.S. election, with comments calling for an impersonation to be featured in China’s widely watched Spring Festival show. “If Trump got on Douyin, he would immediately gain 100 million followers,” one user wrote, referring to the domestic Chinese version of TikTok.

“If I had to choose, I’d say Trump, frankly speaking, would be more beneficial to China,” Jin Canrong, a scholar at Renmin University said in a video on Douyin. According to Jin, Trump would undoubtedly want to give China a hard time, but would lack the strength because of domestic opposition for being a “white supremacist” and international opposition for being an “isolationist.”

Not everyone here is sold on a Trump victory being a clear-cut win for China. The Republican front-runner has threatened to levy tariffs of 60 percent or more on Chinese goods if he wins another term.

“The benefit most likely will not outweigh the cost for China, given the damage he will inflict on U.S.-China relations and on China specifically,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Under Trump, there is no floor to U.S.-China relations.”

Some Chinese establishment scholars urge caution about taking on the United States in a time of intense international turmoil. One wrong step, they warn, and China could miss its shot at global leadership. It’s better for China, they say, to ride out crises such as the war in Ukraine or fighting in the Middle East from the sidelines.

Nationalists who cheer on Trump overestimate Beijing’s ability to assume a stance similarly powerful to America’s in the international order, said a Chinese government adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

“Being a leader has a lot of advantages, but it also has a lot of responsibilities,” the person said. “China’s not ready. It’s far from that. We don’t have the experience or a system of values that’s accepted universally or even the necessary hard power,” meaning military might and financial dominance of the U.S. dollar.

Biden may have continued with strategic competition, but at least there is more communication now after things got so bad by 2020 that “the two sides could not even sit down and talk,” said Ren Xiao, a former Chinese diplomat who is now director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy at Fudan University.

Yet Biden, having done more to rally U.S. allies to join trade controls and other measures against China, is considered by some to be greater threat for China’s interests in the long run.

The thing about Biden, said Huang Rihan, a professor at Huaqiao University in Xiamen, is that he is “nian huai” — meaning to appear genuine on the surface but to secretly harbor malicious intentions.

Biden and his team “say one thing in public but [do] another behind the scenes. Not only do they constrain China from every side but they also pretend to be impartial and selfless,” Huang said. “Relatively speaking, Trump is more honest than Biden. He says what he thinks deep down.”

Li reported from Seoul and Kuo from Taipei, Taiwan.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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