China, a useful target for the candidates

There is one thing that finds Donald Trump and Joseph Biden toeing similar lines, antagonizing the Chinese for their anti-U.S. behavior in as many fields as one can name, from the spreading of the coronavirus to attempting to seize supremacy in the digital field; from their strategic posture to pernicious campaigns aimed at intimidating the Western nations for both political and commercial reasons.
The question is: who can best capitalize best on a virulent offensive against China? President Trump has unleashed relentless attacks against Beijing, pinning on the Chinese the responsibility for hiding the pandemic in Wuhan (and maybe even creating it as the consequence of a misdeed in a laboratory, as many say). His Secretary of State Pompeo went as far as claiming “enormous evidence,” but produced no proof. On the other hand, the president has refrained from taking on the Chinese president Xi, for whom he did not spare obsequious compliments to the point of praising his efforts to contain the virus. As a result, Trump’s anti-Chinese invectives against that country’s leadership are hardly credible. On the other side of the political spectrum, Joe Biden tried to outflank the president when he unleashed an ad that painted Trump as “rolling over to the Chinese” and in particular too willing to accept the Chinese version of what happened in Wuhan.
The question again, is this: who can be more successful in capitalizing on public anger at the Chinese for the astronomic damage that the virus has caused in the United States and other countries? Is it Donald Trump, who is desperately trying to deflect blame for the tardy and chaotic response to the arrival of the virus on American shores? Or is it Biden, who has to defend himself from the accusation of having issued an ad that people of Asian descent consider “insensitive”? Logically speaking, it seems a contest that neither of the two can win. This is especially true if one tries to divine the possible impact of China’s policies, no matter how expansionist and lacking any kind of transparency, upon the U.S. presidential elections.
The scenario is intriguing but far from decisive. One thing is clear, the next election will not be hamstrung by the unrelenting exchange of accusations about Russian interference. Enough damage has been done to American institutions by the perverse efforts of the Russians to intervene and seed disruption in American presidential politics. To a real extent, Americans have been inoculated against that infection.
Impervious as he is to logic, Donald Trump has tweeted that Joe Biden is the “DREAM CANDIDATE of the Chinese.” He does not explain why he thinks that. A minimum of common sense should apply to any interpretation that the Chinese would benefit from having Biden in the White House.
The truth of the matter is that the pandemic has exacerbated a range of xenophobic attitudes that in turn have led to scapegoating for purely political motives.
President Trump has blamed foreigners for the proliferation of the virus and has suspended immigration. In addition, let us not forget the populist autocrats around the world who have taken advantage of the pandemic to become even more authoritarian.
As far as China is concerned, the real problem for America is one of global dimensions.
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States has abdicated the global leadership that was the distinctive mark of the postwar order. The last in a series of such retreats – from the Paris accords on climate change to the most recent decision to disengage from the World Health Organization – cannot but result in a Chinese push to fill the vacuum created by the Trump Administration. In addition, there is a larger set of tectonic changes underway as the distribution of economic power moves away from America and Europe toward Asia and China.
Unfortunately, to say that “we are all in this together” is a delusion in the face of the realignment of forces that the coronavirus crisis has unleashed in the United States and in the nations that up to now were its faithful partners. Blaming others is an empty gesture when American leadership forsakes its traditional role in the world and seems to suggest that every country should look out for itself. Both Trump and Biden should concentrate on the essential focus of the Sino-American relationship: the imperative to ward off the danger that the competitive threat posed by China may evolve into a confrontation in which there would be no winners. Lacking that, the best that we can hope for is that the political exchange concerning China in the next elections remains a zero-sum game.

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