One of the two elderly, flawed characters will be elected to be the most powerful person on the planet in November.


London: Forty-four days to go and Americans, regardless of their tribal allegiances, are facing the strangest presidential election in living memory. I’m not referring to the effects of Covid-19, which of course is playing a major part in the election, having transformed US electoral crosswinds into a full-blown squall. No, I’m referring to the two candidates, thought by many to be the worst for several generations.

Joe Biden, once considered brash and garrulous when he became America’s youngest Senator in 1972, is now a shadow of his former self. He is the oldest ever candidate running for election as US President, and if successful will be 78 on inauguration day. His age at times has been painfully apparent on the campaign trail, his speech has been constrained and his stories meander without reaching their conclusion. Biden’s campaigning is far removed from his energetic image in the Nixon years.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has his own negative features. He is the only incumbent of the White House in modern history never to have received an approval rating of more than 49%; recently it has been hovering just above 40%. He is also the first ever US President to seek election after being impeached and is the oldest ever to stand for re-election.

So, two elderly, flawed characters, one of whom in November will be elected to be the most powerful person on the planet. Sleepy Joe or Dodgy Donald! The world trembles.

President Trump originally planned to campaign on the economy, but the coronavirus has put paid to that. Americans normally vote with their wallets, but with an unemployment rate at 8.4% in August and millions of Americans relying on food banks, now is not a good time to mention the economy on the campaign trail. Instead, with mass protests against police brutality, “law and order” has become a major issue, but not the dominant one. Listen to Trump’s haranguing at his election gatherings and you’ll find one word dominating his speech: China—normally hissed as Chinaaaaaa!

Donald Trump strenuously argues that in recent years China has become richer while the US has become poorer, all due to the misguided policies of his predecessors who had “allowed China to rape our country”. Since he entered the White House, relations between the US and China have spiralled to their lowest point in decades. He has waged a tariff war, sanctioned Chinese officials, angered Beijing with his support for Taiwan, and banned Chinese technology companies such as Huawei.

But what has he actually achieved by this behaviour? Almost nothing. He promised to end US “chronic trade deficits”, but in his first two years the US-China trade deficit actually rose, returning this year to the level at the time he took office. He promised to deliver a new trade deal, but although the two countries struck a trade agreement in early 2020, implementation has only been partial and non-tariff barriers have continued to rise. He promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, but those American companies which have left China have gone to South East Asian countries such as Vietnam, with a much lower manufacturing cost. To cap it all, on Friday the World Trade Organisation ruled that US tariffs on Chinese imports are illegal under global trade rules.

The list of failures goes on and on: no progress on promises to put an end to China’s dumping; none on alleged currency manipulation; none on illegal export subsidies; and none on intellectual property theft. Claims that he would compel China to be more supportive of US efforts on issues such as Iran and North Korea have simply led to Iran moving into China’s sphere of influence and North Korea developing and firing more rockets. Oh, and don’t forget that wall. “We’re going to build a big and beautiful wall, and the Mexicans are going to pay for it.” How’s that going, Mr President? You need a high-powered magnifying glass to detect any positive results of Trump’s four years in power.

Few doubt that the world is seeing the unprecedented geopolitical challenge of a rising nationalistic and repressive China. Unwilling to respect global rules and norms, China has reneged on its agreement with the UK on Hong Kong’s autonomy, has continued to illegally expand its military activities in the South China Sea, has sunk or harassed ships from Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan, and in a deliberate attempt to escalate tensions with India, murdered 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley.

These are the actions of an economically and militarily powerful rogue player on the world scene and the question is how to combat this growing threat without destroying the world economy and avoiding a physical war. To a large extent, the immediate answer to this question is in the hands of the American voters and for them the choice is simple and clear: will four more years of Donald Trump’s so far unsuccessful policies succeed against China, or would the country and the world be better served by a change to Biden’s more inclusive policies of working with international partners?

Along with many world leaders who hoped that an increasingly prosperous China would “become one of us”, Joe Biden has morphed into a China-sceptic as the autocratic Xi Jinping dashed all such hopes. But this hasn’t stopped Donald Trump endlessly claiming that his Democratic opponent is “soft on China” and that if Joe Biden wins the November election “China will own the United States and all Americans will have to learn Chinese”.

In truth, concerns about China have become decidedly bipartisan in Washington in recent years. In the Democrat’s sweeping 92-page list of their policies, China is mentioned 22 times. The document details how a President Biden will take aggressive action against China or any other country that tries to undercut American manufacturing; it confirms that the US will work with allies to stand up to China; it condemns China’s mass internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities; and promises to enforce sanctions on entities “responsible for undercutting Hong Kong’s autonomy”. By contrast, the short Republican policy document has only one item on China: “End our reliance on China”.

Both Trump and Biden propose dealing with China in their own individual ways, but the significant words missing from the Republican document are “work with allies”. This emphasises the big difference between the two candidates. Biden is a multilateralist on trade, security and human rights, who would bring America back into the many world institutions from which Trump withdrew the country. This would allow cooperation and diplomacy to work, rather than just bullying, threats and stand-offs, Trump’s methods of choice.

Although America proposed recently to breathe life back into the dormant “Quad”, with the four countries India, Japan, Australia, and America “providing a safe and secure Indo-Pacific through defence and diplomatic partnerships”, Trump’s battle cry has always been “America First”, which in effect has turned out to be “America Alone”. Supremely confident in his own abilities, Donald Trump finds it almost impossible to work with partners without dominating or even demeaning them, and it is doubtful that the Quad will be successful if he stays a further four years in the White House. On the other hand, Biden’s America would be a strong and enthusiastic member of the Quad.

But which candidate would China prefer to win in November? Having earlier asked President Xi Jinping to help him win re-election, according to his former Security Adviser John Bolton, President Trump now has no doubt that China wants his opponent to win. In a recent tweet he proclaimed “The Chinese are desperate to have Sleepy Joe Biden win the presidential race so they can continue to rip-off the United States, as they have done for decades, until I came along”. Apart from showing his usual modesty, Trump is wrong in this as in so many things. Chinese trade negotiator Long Yongtu told a Shenzhen conference late last year, “We want Trump to be re-elected; we would be glad to see that happen”, adding, “the President’s tweets make him very easy to read”. The powerful editor of the CCP-run newspaper Global Times, Hu Xijin, tweeted last month, “The Chinese wish for your (Trump’s) re-election because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful to the world”.

In fact, four more years of Trump, though likely packed with annoyances and disputes, would present China with tantalising opportunities to expand its influence around East Asia and the world. Xi Jinping believes that Donald Trump doesn’t see China as an ideological adversary and regards his threat of decoupling supply chains as sheer fantasy. Any separation of the world’s two largest economies would do irreparable damage to the global trading system and cripple America’s economy. Xi is also keenly aware that a President with a more “normal” American foreign policy, in which Washington works closely with its friends and stands behind international norms and institutions, isn’t good for China.

Joe Biden has already vowed to forge a coalition of countries to isolate and confront China. “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles”, he argued. “China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy”. Knowing that American nationalism will only beget more Chinese nationalism in an upward spiral, he reasons that the best response to President Xi’s increasingly authoritarian regime is to adopt a more asymmetric approach, reaffirming the US’s democratic values and calmly coordinating with allies.

That, and not Donald Trump, is the stuff of Chinese nightmares. It’s also the reason why a President Biden, supported by a powerful and experienced team, would be more effective and successful against China.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.