Who would China vote for in next month’s US presidential election?
The question, though hypothetical, is of the utmost importance. US-China relations have crashed so emphatically since Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017 that analysts now routinely discuss the risk of superpower conflict.
In China’s eyes, the choice between Mr Trump and Joe Biden, his Democratic party challenger, is stark. Mr Trump is expected to continue his hawkish policies towards Beijing, but the former vice-president’s inclination towards multilateralism raises the potential for greater co-operation with China, several analysts said.
“Biden will have more platforms or channels to negotiate with China and we may see a less intense world,” said Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s state council or cabinet.
“For President Trump, I believe he will continue to be surrounded by very hawkish advisers on China and stimulate more negative policies and proposals on China,” added Mr Wang, who is also president of the Center for China and Globalization, a think-tank.
Mr Wang said Mr Biden would reassert US leadership in the western world, bringing the US back into the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization and possibly some international trade agreements as well. In 2017, Mr Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement and pulled out of the WHO this year.
But any accommodation towards China from a Biden administration would be shortlived, said Chen Zhiwu, a professor at Hong Kong University.
Mr Chen agreed that Mr Biden would probably adopt a traditional American multilateral approach to foreign policy — in contrast to Mr Trump’s unilateral, “America First” agenda.
“This difference in style would apply to and affect the US-China relationship,” said Mr Chen, who is also director of the Asia Global Institute, a think-tank.
“As a result, a Biden administration may make life easier for China in the first year or two, as it will take him some time to undo some of the changes made by the Trump administration, but it may present a tougher challenge to China in the longer-term,” Mr Chen added.
The reason behind such foreboding is that one of the stated intentions behind Mr Biden’s multilateralism is to counter China.
Mr Biden put it like this: “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the rules of the road on everything from the environment to labour, trade, technology and transparency, so they continue to reflect democratic interests and values.”
Yu Jie, a senior fellow at Chatham House, a UK think-tank, thinks the prospects for US-China relations are bleak whoever wins.
“Neither Biden nor Trump will run a ‘China-friendly’ policy after claiming victory,” Ms Yu said. “Yes, there are differences in style but less so in policy areas in terms of curbing China’s rise and in the overall direction of travel on Sino-US relations,” she said.
Given this, some analysts think that four more years of Mr Trump might actually be preferred by the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s president.
“A Trump victory would be dreadful for US-China relations but something of a gift for Mr Xi politically,” said Ms Yu. “The more the US demonises China, the more that Chinese citizens — even those who dislike Xi’s leadership — would rally behind him.
“And within the [Communist] party, anyone who dared to criticise Xi would be accused of kowtowing to foreign aggressors and thus effectively silenced.”
Ms Yu added: “Continuous China bashing from the Trump administration would completely eliminate the pro-US and less conservative voices within the Chinese political establishment.”
Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, said: “Since Trump became president, he has done more than anyone, including Xi, toward making China great again and thus delivered what Xi wanted to achieve for China globally.”
He added: “The balance of power in the world has swung more into China’s favour under Trump.”
But is it possible that the US-China rivalry could spill over into conflict? Bilateral strategic tension has surged this year as Chinese armed forces conduct exercises near Taiwan, a self-governing nation that Beijing claims as its sacred territory but which the US helps militarily.
“It will depend on what one means by conflict,” said Mr Tsang. “I suspect not a military conflict, as the People’s Liberation Army is still not ready to take on the US forces and this is unlikely to change decisively in the next four years.
“But escalating competition and confrontation in other areas such as trade or technological transfer or punishment on named persons on both sides may well become more frequent.”
So ultimately, the question of whether Beijing would vote for Biden or Trump is easy to answer. It would choose neither.