This election season will have a destabilizing effect on US-China relations

President Biden and former President Trump don’t agree on much, but they do agree on this: China poses a threat to the United States. Biden’s language on this score is more diplomatic, but his administration’s policies are unambiguous. Some analysts even contend that his approach to China has been tougher than Trump’s. Although this has not stopped Trump from repeatedly chiding Biden for being soft on China. Meanwhile, Biden has criticized Trump along similar lines. Such squabbling aside, the message is consistent: America must stand up to China.

This drumbeat has been a constant in American politics in recent years, but its urgency will grow as we move closer to the general election in November. Already, Biden has proposed tripling sanctions on Chinese steel and aluminum products. And Trump has floated a blanket 60 percent tariff on all Chinese goods coming into the U.S. Legitimate policy concerns underlie such a rising cacophony. China under President Xi Jinping has become much more of a challenger to U.S. interests. This applies not only to trade but also a wide array of national security issues. However, the main driver of the noise that is to come has even more to do with what is going on inside American politics than what is happening on the other side of the Pacific.

In the coming months, electoral math is likely to have a destabilizing effect on U.S.-China relations. The temptation will loom for the candidates to accentuate differences, play on underlying fears, and enact (or at least propose) policy measures that will risk pulling the U.S. and China into more direct conflict— and in a worst-case scenario, to the brink of war.

Biden and Trump will be viewing China less through the prism of national interest, and more, via the looking glass of how to win the White House in November. Last year, the Pew Research Center observed that 83 percent of Americans surveyed had a negative view of China, while over 44 percent had “very unfavorable” views of the country. Importantly, such antipathy was pronounced among both Democrats and Republicans (although the latter group tends to harbor deeper and sharper suspicions of Beijing). As such there is little evidence of support across the political spectrum for working with China.

Given the fragility of both countries’ economies and their ongoing interdependence, real or proposed changes to trade policy risks direct U.S.-China conflict that could have far-reaching implications. The danger becomes even more pronounced should accusations begin to fly regarding China’s commitment to maintaining peace and stability within the existing international order. Where it has the potential to truly metastasize is regarding Taiwan. Its relationship with mainland China (which views it as wayward territory) already stands on a knife’s edge in the lead-up to next month’s inauguration of its new president, Lai Ching-te. And tensions between Beijing and Washington over the island will be further heightened in the coming days as foreign aid legislation just approved by the House (containing provisions for billions in military aid to Taiwan) becomes law. China’s leaders are sure to sharply criticize such support as a form of inference in their country’s internal affairs.

What would ramp things up to a much more worrisome level is if Biden actively moves to significantly upgrade (in volume and quality) U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Such a gambit from an American president facing a hotly contested election would not be unprecedented. In the fall of 1992, George H.W. Bush, while behind in the polls to his Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, voiced his support for selling F-16s fighter jets to Taiwan. While this did not bring China and the U.S. to the brink of war, it did mark the start of a sustained period of pronounced tensions between the two sides over the island (culminating in the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis). That downward spiral occurred when China was much weaker than it is today, and somewhat less demanding that the island be accepted by all as a part of China. Biden would be ill advised to go down the same path now, even if doing so would bolster his being strong on China credentials.

Conversely, Trump continues to revel in shaking up the status quo in U.S. foreign policy. There is an element of volatility in his approach to the world, and this includes his stance on China. Although he repeatedly touts his record of being tough on Beijing, especially on trade issues, he has also expressed personal admiration of Xi. There is a perception in some corners that his support for Taiwan might be conditional — that in search of a deal with China, he could sell Taiwan down the river. There is no evidence that Trump is actively contemplating such a move, but it is also not hard to imagine him floating the idea at a campaign rally as he searches for a new applause line. Regardless of whether there is any truth in such a possibility, the very fact that it has been discussed on both sides of the Pacific is cause for concern. It could very easily embolden China to act unilaterally on Taiwan. Trump should make clear that as much as his supporters love him to shake things up in Washington, he is not going to waffle on this issue.

The problem of China policy during an election year is how to avoid unnecessarily pushing U.S.-China relations to the brink solely as part of a search for short-term political gains. The collateral damage from such posturing could be immeasurable. War with China serves no one’s interests. One hopes both Trump and Biden agree on this statement. We should all also hope that they agree that winning the White House at the expense of dragging America and China into direct conflict is also not worth doing.

Allen Carlson is Associate Professor of the Government Department at Cornell University.

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