There is no bilateral diplomatic relationship more consequential than the one between the United States and China, which affects not only the two countries but all of humanity. And now, the future of this relationship hinges on who will lead each country in the years ahead.
When COVID-19 arrived earlier this year, it struck an already-slowing global economy that was mired in debt. The pandemic is now making these problems worse, all but ensuring that there will be more dark days to come, particularly for the world's poor.
In the US, the next presidential election is barely two months away, and – barring complications – either the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, will be sworn in on January 20, 2021. In China’s case, however, almost everyone assumes that President Xi Jinping will hold the reins of power indefinitely. But while a change in the top Chinese leadership seems improbable, it is not impossible. As such, we should really be considering the possibility of four separate scenarios in Sino-American relations.
First, suppose that Biden wins and China remains under Xi’s leadership for the long term. In a commentary for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden promised that his main foreign-policy priority as president would be to restore America’s global leadership and democratic alliances. He wants to invest in infrastructure, education, and research and development. With a Biden administration, one could expect less drama and inflammatory rhetoric toward China.
But tough action against Chinese industrial and foreign policies would no doubt remain on the table. Once America’s commitment to defending a liberal global order was restored, Chinese leaders would restrain their bid for international leadership. If Biden’s agenda were realized, the US would be more secure, and thus less paranoid about China’s rise.
In the second scenario, Trump pulls off another surprise victory, with profound implications for US-China relations. Whereas Trump’s upset victory in 2016 was widely regarded as a fluke, a second win would have to be taken as a de facto endorsement of his demagogic nationalism and xenophobia. In a deeply divided and insecure country, opposing China might become the one issue that members on both sides of the partisan divide could embrace. With eight years of Trump in office, the damage inflicted on America’s global standing would be long-lasting, if not permanent.1
True, an optimist might argue that after winning re-election, Trump would soften his stance and focus on doing business with China rather than stoking enmity. But if the past four years have shown us anything, it is that Trump plays only to his base, which responds to emotional appeals, not rational analysis and deliberation. Most likely, winning a second term would embolden the Trump administration to take China-bashing to the extreme.
This scenario would be dreadful for China, but something of a gift for Xi politically. The more the US vilified China, the more that Chinese citizens – even those who resent Xi’s dictatorial control – would rally behind him. And within the Communist Party of China (CPC), anyone who dared to criticize Xi would be accused of abetting foreign aggressors, and thus effectively silenced.
Still, a change in China’s top leadership cannot be ruled out. Yes, with China having successfully contained COVID-19 while the US continues to flounder, Xi appears to have won. And since he has already done away with constitutional term limits, he could remain China’s supreme leader for life.
Yet beneath this façade of invincibility, Xi should feel just as insecure as Trump does in the wake of the pandemic. Despite the certainty of punishment, some senior CPC members have recently spoken up against him, and on key economic issues, his and the premier’s positions are in open contradiction, an abnormality in Chinese politics. On foreign policy, in particular, Xi’s increasingly aggressive approach has made more enemies for China at a time of unprecedented domestic strain.
To secure the political stability needed for economic growth, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who launched “reform and opening” in the late twentieth century, took pains to establish norms of collective leadership and institutionalized succession. But because Xi has systematically dismantled these norms, the CPC now faces a situation in which any political outcome is possible: Xi could enjoy lifetime tenure, be forced to hand over power in 2022, or be toppled by a sudden coup. The absence of periodic elections should not be taken to mean that Chinese politics is inherently more stable than that of the US or other democracies.
Suppose, for the sake of scenario planning, that a new Chinese leader was negotiating with either Biden or Trump. Under Biden, one could at least expect the US to engage in professional diplomacy. But if a political upset in China were to coincide with another Trump term, all bets would be off.
As the old joke goes, prediction is difficult, especially when it is about the future. No one can say with certainty what will happen in the coming months and years, because the possible outcomes are constantly being changed by current actions and shocks like pandemics and record floods. Even the most carefully laid plans can be scuttled by unexpected developments. But what decision-makers can and should do is consider different scenarios based on current features and trends.
To pin all of one’s hopes on an outcome that seems most likely or desirable is to risk succumbing to dangerous complacency. When it comes to the critical issue of US-China relations, the wise approach is to look ahead and imagine all possibilities, however unthinkable they may seem now.