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Opinion

2020 look ahead: China will be punching bag in US presidential election

Donald Trump and Democratic rival can compete to see who is tougher on Beijing

Xi's ability to restrain his own hard-liners will be tested.   © AP

Confrontation between China and the U.S., the world's two largest economies, escalated dramatically in 2019, covering not just trade but also technology and Hong Kong. With the presidential election in the U.S. just around the corner, the obvious question is whether the contest between Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger will further exacerbate this adversarial relationship.

To be sure, the issues dominating 2020's presidential campaign will be domestic, such as health care, taxes, jobs and immigration. The race will be decided both on the merits of the candidates' policies and appeal and on the quirks of the American electoral college system, which favors Trump.

However, when foreign policy is raised in the campaign, China will be one of the most contentious issues on which Trump and the Democratic nominee will try to stake out distinct positions. The problem for Beijing is not whether the candidates will offer stark choices but whether they will compete with each other to be tougher on China.

Topping the China debate will be trade. Even though Beijing and Washington have reached a modest interim deal to de-escalate the trade war, structural trade tensions, such as large bilateral deficits, access to the Chinese market and disputes over intellectual property violations and Chinese industrial policy, will continue to fester.

One cannot rule out fresh disputes over the fulfillment of the terms of the deal, in particular China's commitment to purchase large, albeit unspecified, amounts of U.S. agricultural products. The quarterly review of China's performance in implementing the deal offers plenty of opportunities for Trump to reignite the trade war if he believes doing so will boost his chances of reelection.

Even as he continues to tout his record on confronting China and getting Beijing's commitment to open its market to U.S. products and services, Trump will maintain his tough-guy image by sticking to a hard line China policy.

To placate the hawks in Washington, he may further restrict Chinese access to American technologies and tighten regulations over China-bound financial investments and scrutiny of Chinese companies listed on American stock exchanges.

The modest interim deal Trump has reached with Chinese President Xi Jinping will, if anything, provide a juicy target for Democrats. They will denounce Trump for launching a trade war that harmed the U.S. economy but failed to produce meaningful results. At the same time, Democrats will attack him for not being sufficiently firm on China.

In particular, they will single out Trump's lack of support for the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong and his silence on the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

In this environment, both parties have incentives to support more confrontational tactics. Looming on the horizon are three issues of particular concern to Beijing: Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

With the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, the U.S. State Department is required to provide its annual report on the situation in Hong Kong in 2020. If China moves ahead with its recently announced plan to tighten its grip on the city, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a China hawk reviled in Beijing, may find it hard to certify that Hong Kong retains sufficient autonomy to be treated as a separate entity from China.

As for Xinjiang, the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act is now working its way through Congress and is expected to gain passage in 2020. Its proposed sanctions on senior Chinese leaders in Xinjiang, including its party chief, for human rights violations will precipitate a strong and hostile reaction from Beijing.

The worst nightmare for Beijing in 2020 will be Taiwan. With President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party poised to win reelection in January, Beijing will be dealt a humiliating blow.

Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech as she launches her re-election campaign in Taipei on Nov. 17, 2019: the worst nightmare for Beijing will be Taiwan.   © AP

But Washington could add insult to injury by going ahead with some of the policies recently approved in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Among other things, the act calls for the establishment of a U.S.-Taiwan joint cybersecurity force, the exchange of visits by high-ranking military officials and even joint live-fire military exercises.

These measures, if implemented, will infuriate Beijing, which will see them as explicitly encouraging the pro-independence forces in Taiwan and violating the terms of the 1979 Sino-American agreement to normalize diplomatic relations.

These likely developments in 2020 will pose a serious test to Xi's ability to keep the Sino-American rivalry from spiraling out of control. The combination of overheated election rhetoric, continuing tensions across a wide range of issues and the actions mandated by Congress will fuel a nationalist backlash both within the party and among ordinary people. The pressure on Xi to respond in kind will mount.

Up to this point, Xi appears to have been able to restrain his own hard-liners. Although Beijing has adopted strident anti-American rhetoric, it has exercised enough caution to avoid needless and potentially catastrophic escalations that will bring about a complete collapse of bilateral relations. But his ability to continue to do so will be sorely tested in 2020.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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