In the United States maybe there are "too many elections", as Xi Jinping would have told Donald Trump on the sidelines of the Tokyo G20 in 2019, but Tuesday, November 3, 2020 has arrived. And the Americans will vote, again. Although, according to what was recounted in John Bolton's recent book, the outgoing president himself agreed with his "colleague" that polling stations are opened too often. In 2018, Xi managed to get approval for the removal of the bond between the two mandates, and from the Communist Party's Fifth Plenum, which ended in Beijing in recent days, a presidential horizon that looks to 2035 seems to emerge.
At that G20, Xi would tell Trump that he hoped to be able to work with him for another term. A geological era seems to have passed, just as two geological eras seem to have passed since November 8, 2016, the day when the tycoon defeated Hillary Clinton and gained access to the White House. It is commonly believed that the US and China have become "enemies" due to Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic.
SAME STORY, DIFFERENT SCRIPT
In reality, in these four years we have not witnessed any reversals or changes of script compared to what was already happening at the end of the presidency of Barack Obama. Simply, the style in which this script is written has changed, and so did the speed of the plot. From a psychological political drama it became an action thriller with bombastic announcements.
In geopolitics, actions matter, not words. But sometimes even the form becomes substance. The Asian partners, whom Obama was engaging in a containment network of China, are much more comfortable in the suffused atmospheres of psychological drama and damn uncomfortable in Trump's "shooter" (figuratively, for now). This is why, as we have said several times, the countries of Southeast Asia did not let themselves be "enlisted" by Mike Pompeo on the South China Sea affair.
While regional middle powers like Japan and India seem to be getting close to Washington's wishes, they are actually moving to build an Asian alternative to the Dragon that can do without a Big Brother who has become unpredictable. It is often said that Trump "woke up" the United States and Western and Asian partners on behalf of China, exposing a rivalry that could not be hidden behind trade and non-trade cooperation. This is probably true. And this has allowed the US to significantly reduce the deficit in trade with the Dragon, after hitting the record of 2017. The point is the way he did it, trying to force to use choices that are not economically convenient without supply in exchange the American "ideological" stature.
"DON'T GET FOOLED"
All of Trump's foreign policy, in accordance with his America First, appears to be guided by one principle: don't get fooled. Hence the torn agreements with Iran, Mexico and Canada, the announced withdrawal of soldiers from the Middle East and Germany, the tariffs on European products and the farewell to the TPP (trans-Pacific partnership which was none other than the Obamian project of an Asian network with American leadership to contain China disguised as a trade deal).
Even the defensive agreements with the Philippines (actually, in this case more because of Rodrigo Duterte) was questioned, and so did the one with South Korea, a fifty-year cornerstone of American strategy in East Asia. But in the face of an increasingly secure, assertive and outward-looking China through the Belt and Road Initiative, the first global superpower would have had to budget for some "rip-off", a cost to reaffirm its geopolitical leadership.
Instead Trump has questioned all partnerships, emptying the role of international organizations and exacerbating the identity crisis (already underway before him) of democratic systems. Look at the repeated statements on the uselessness of NATO, which among other things helped Turkey's adventurism between the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and those on the World Trade Organization, of which Trump is blocking the appointment of the next director. Or the sudden farewell to the World Health Organization, in the midst of the pandemic. Leaving gaps to fill, in which Beijing has been able to gain positions.
An episode, the latter, which also opened several eyes in Taiwan. At least at the government level, while an overwhelming number of Taiwanese citizens continue to hope for Trump's victory, fearing that with Biden the US will become softer with China. That appears wrong. The outgoing president has repeatedly demonstrated that he uses arguments and allies in utilitarian terms. It has abandoned the Kurds in Syria, it has canceled Hong Kong's special status by not actually opposing it but by facilitating the assimilation of the former British colony on the condition of a "simple Chinese city".
He had promised to help Taipei get back to WHO meetings, only to get out himself. It has imposed a ban on the export of chips and semiconductors to Huawei, a key customer for Tsmc, the world's leading foundry which represents not only an economic but also a diplomatic pillar for Taipei. Although the intricate dialogue has been eliminated at the political level since the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, the role of Tsmc helped Taiwan to be fundamental for Beijing, which in the Hsinchu giant had an essential piece of its technological supply chain. Recent arms sales and high-level visits by Health Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach have turned the spotlight on Taiwan even more.
On the island there is an old adage that goes: "From the United States we need a stable and lasting relationship, not a passionate and unpredictable love". Here, if on the one hand it is undeniable that Trump's actions have brought Taiwan to the center of the debate, on the other hand he has considerably increased the risks. So much so that some analysts believe that Formosa could be the relief valve of an indirect confrontation or a low intensity between the two main powers. In fact, in Taipei's expense, which would not or should not be identified too much as the "tip of the pen" of Trump's anti-Chinese strategies.
A BIDEN PRESIDENCY?
What's on the other side? It is too early to understand in detail what Biden's foreign policy would be. But its guidelines can be glimpsed: reaffirm the role of the American "city on the hill", relaunch its presence in international organizations and re-establish global partnerships that have been questioned over the past four years. Not an easy undertaking, but one that would be welcomed in many European and Asian chancelleries. As for China, the plane is now too inclined to bring it perfectly horizontal.
If elected, Biden could not raise accusations of being "soft" with China. But returning to the script we were talking about at the beginning, the style would change. Less bombastic ads, less "shooter" and more political drama. The commercial limitations could remain, but at a geopolitical level we would seek a policy of engagement, which however does not neglect the "ideological" issues, with a greater insistence on human rights than Trump (who actually, apart from in recent months, had some all neglected).
Biden could speak more of Xinjiang and less of "Chinese virus". Above all, it could try to solidify the architecture of globalization that has allowed the United States to maintain its global leadership over the past 75 years. Even involving China, for example in terms of climate change. At the epidermal level it may seem like a step backwards and a favor in Beijing.
In reality, the feared (and unattainable in its entirety) decoupling and the possible regionalization could allow the Dragon to more confidently control its internal knots (first, true, objective of the Communist Party), assert its role in Asia and elsewhere. regions such as Africa, moving towards a South-North division that quantitatively (both demographic and international fora) would benefit China.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER FOR CHINA?
Then there is one last aspect to consider, the psychological one. Let's go back to the first two meetings between Trump and Xi. In Mar-a-Lago the granddaughter Arabelle recites in Chinese. In Beijing, Xi welcomes Trump inside the Forbidden City. On the one hand, the progeny of the president of the first (currently) global superpower uses the verb of the second. On the other hand, the second (currently) global superpower makes the first feel the weight of its history and magnificence.
As it may the dialogues reported by Bolton are true. As it may Trump's rave praise for Xi was tactical, it is now agreed in Beijing to deal with a one-man-show. A one-man-show that in its second term could also become dangerous for the Dragon's interests, but that could always remain one-man-show. And above all it could remain the touchstone to be offered to the Chinese public, and beyond. The disastrous handling of the Covid pandemic, internal fragmentation and the rifts sharpened by a president who rules only for his followers. All elements to say: "Are you sure that Western democracies work better than the Chinese model?". A model that is still nominally socialist but that with Xi claims again its millennial character.