Whilst Donald Trump continues to wage a full scale trade war against China that many have characterised as a new cold war, Trump has generally refrained from meddling into China’s internal affairs. Even when seemingly forced to offer a remark on China’s internal matters, Trump appears as though he does not care and the truth is that he almost certainly does not care. The same cannot be said about his increasingly hysterical opponents in America’s Democratic party. Whilst England’s 14th Early of Derby once bluntly stated that it is the job of a political opposition to oppose, when it comes to the contemporary nuances of opposition politics in a globalised world, there is often more at stake.
The truth of the matter is that Trump wants to accuse his opponents of being “soft on China”. This is partly due to the reality that Trump wants to avenge the fact that for years the opposition have accused him of being “soft on Russia”. Secondly, as Trump sees his policy of economic and market place hostility against China as a major electoral points scorer, he will naturally claim that he is superior to his opponents in this area.
Because of this, if by some chance one of his opponents wins the 2020 US election, they will likely have to act in even more hostile ways towards China than Trump. This would be the case because such a Democrat would be obliged to dissuade the public and political elite form thinking that Trump had been correct in calling the Democrats ‘suspiciously soft on China’.
Beyond this, the US Democrats do not have a particularly good record on healthy relations with China. It was Republican President Richard Nixon who first engaged in historic dialogue with China from the US side and it was future Republican President George H.W. Bush who became America’s most important man in Beijing during the 1970s. Whilst Republican President Ronald Reagan waged a Cold War against the USSR, against the background of the Sino-Soviet rivalry, Reagan developed increasingly good commercial relations with China.
Turning again to George H.W. Bush, it was under his leadership that calls from the US Congress to inflict damage upon China after 4 June 1989 were largely rebuffed with an ultimately moderate approach from the Bush White House. Finally, it was Bush’s son who at the beginning of the 21st century granted China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) which enabled China to join the WTO.
By contrast, it was Democrat Bill Clinton who in 1996 dangerously and irresponsibly militarily meddled in China’s internal situation in respect of the Cross-Strait issue. More recently, it was Barack Obama who sought to prioritise antagonism against China in the South China Sea.
Whilst Donald Trump is not pro-China as such, his hostility is motivated by a surprisingly straightforward (however outdated) zero-sum approach to business (including global trade). Beyond this, Trump personally has shown little desire to comment on nor care about the internal development of foreign lands. By contrast, Democratic Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi just met with opposition figures from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. China’s influential Global Times has responded with an editorial titled “HK-meddling displays trashy US discourse”. In the article Pelosi and her Democratic party are the main targets of ire. According to the piece in the Global Times:
“Please note: When Pelosi and her peers bash China, they are destroying the rationality that once built up the United States of America”.
In an article that only refers once to Donald Trump, the Chinese author(s) decry Pelosi as someone destroying the rationality which once underlined the China-US relationship beginning in the era of Mao and Nixon. As a country that values win-win relations based on rationality, it is clear that the Global Times is criticising Pelosi in a manner that is far more severe than those unfamiliar with Chinese cultural characteristics might at first believe.
Typically, American liberals tend to clamour for intervention and meddling into the affairs of foreign nations more so than those in the centre or on the moderate right. In this sense, there is a great deal of honesty in the Chinese article’s characterisation of Pelosi’s peers.
Beyond this, perhaps China is learning from the neighbouring DPRK that the best way to make a direct appeal to Donald Trump is to “accidentally” join him in publicly criticising his hated domestic opponents. As Trump’s opponents are incessantly criticising the internal affairs of China, it is clearly fair game for China to rhetorically push back according to any ethical equation and by the logic of being allowed to defend one’s self against hostility in the public arena.
Pyongyang’s official media recently offered a scathing criticism of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and even went so far as to call him a “low IQ idiot” in a clear nod to one of Donald Trump’s favourite insults (“low IQ individual”).
Whilst the recent piece in the Global Times doesn’t use language quite as strong as that which the DPRK used against Biden, this is mostly a reflection of the fact that Chinese media in general tends not to use language as strong as that coming out of the DPRK (this is true of most nations vis-a-vis the DPRK). But just because Pelosi was not called a “low IQ idiot”, one should not underestimate the fact that for many Democrats, it will be no longer possible to have it both ways with China. This is the case because China has come to understand the Democrats’ cunning game.
The Clinton and Obama years can by characterised by Washington attempting to have it both ways with China. Under Clinton and Obama, the US sought to reap a material advantage from increased trade with China whilst at the same time, the US was meddling in China’s internal affairs and peaceful regional interests.
With Trump, there is no mystery as to what he wants. The only mystery that remains is how to reach a win-win agreement with a man such as Trump. But if China is to abandon all naieve hopes that Trump’s possible successors might be easier to deal with, it will become ever more likely for realism to prevail on both sides just as it appears to be doing in respect of US involvement in the Korean peace process.