5 August 2020
Every year for the past fifteen years, the Pew Research Center has surveyed Americans about their views on China. Attitudes fluctuated, but no strong trends were discernible until the election of Donald Trump. In 2016, prior to his election, 47 per cent of Americans held an unfavourable view of China and 44 per cent a favourable one. In the most recent survey, conducted in June and July, 73 per cent had an unfavourable view, while just 22 per cent had a favourable opinion.
The Pew results suggest that, notwithstanding the impact of Xi Jinping’s belligerence, American distrust of China may prove to be one of Trump’s most significant legacies. The results also indicate that the White House’s growing toughness towards Beijing is not only ideological or values-based – it is political.
The US presidential election is less than three months away and the Trump campaign has been trying to capitalise on the anti-China sentiment it has fostered. Washington’s strident approach has forced Canberra to openly disagree with its closest ally. This was evident last week at the Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations in Washington, when Australian foreign minister Marise Payne pointedly refused to endorse the strong anti-China rhetoric of her US counterpart Mike Pompeo.
“The secretary’s positions are his own,” she said. “Australia’s position is our own.”
Joe Biden, or “Beijing Biden”, as the Trump team calls him, has also been toughening his stance on China. Earlier this year, a Biden campaign ad claimed Trump was weak on China and had let in thousands of travellers from China after signing a travel ban in response to the pandemic. The ad angered the Asian-American community, who accused Biden of encouraging xenophobia and replicating Trump’s efforts to seek re-election by turning China into a “scapegoat”. The Biden team subsequently softened the tone of the ads.
Biden is clearly aware that being seen as weak on China is a political risk. He has not yet made a major foreign policy speech during the campaign but there have been indications of how his approach would differ from Trump’s.
Two weeks ago, the Democrats released a draft platform that outlined its position on China. It said a Democratic government would condemn Chinese human rights abuses and defend American manufacturing without “falling into the trap of a new Cold War”. Democrats would “push back on malign behaviour while also pursuing cooperation on issues of mutual interest like climate change and non-proliferation”.
This approach – combative on trade and human rights but cautious about starting a broader battle – is consistent with Biden’s statements on China in recent months and the views of his current and former advisors, such as Antony Blinken and Ely Ratner.
Biden’s approach might not work. The United States and China are the world’s two most powerful countries and it could well prove impossible to separate confrontations on trade or human rights from competition for global influence. So, whoever wins in November, Australia is likely to face further difficulties in navigating relations with its most important security and trade partners. Canberra may still be forced to publicly distance itself from the United States.
But Biden appears to be searching for a coherent approach to China and may at least restore consistency to American foreign policy. Interestingly, it is not just Australia and other US allies that appear eager for such clarity – it’s also the American public. In June, a Suffolk University/USA Today poll found 51 per cent of Americans thought Biden would do a better job of handling China, compared with 41 per cent who favoured Trump.