20th November 2023 – (Washington) The fragile détente in relations between the United States and China reached during President Biden’s recent summit with President Xi could be shattered if Donald Trump regains the White House in 2024. While Biden has stabilized ties after their downward spiral under Trump, a second Trump term would likely unleash unpredictable disruption that risks conflict between the superpowers.
Following November’s meeting in Bali, Biden and Xi set a constructive tone by agreeing to resume climate cooperation, maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition. This modest consensus acknowledges shared interests despite profound disagreements over Taiwan, technology restrictions and human rights.
However, Trump’s hostile approach toward China as an existential threat would resurface if he is elected again. His aggressive unilateral actions against China shocked Beijing during his first term. A sequel administration packed with loyalists would feel unconstrained implementing Trump’s visceral instincts.
While Trump claims he could swiftly end the Ukraine war by partnering with Russia, his record shows belligerence toward China supersedes strategy. Trump catalysed the trade war by imposing sweeping tariffs, restricted Chinese tech firms and students, and approved huge arms sales to Taiwan. His Secretary of State depicted China as a tyranny seeking global dominance.
Although Trump touts his rapport with Xi and ability to strike deals, his China policy in practice aligned with the hawkish wing of his administration. Trump’s priorities were political self-interest and projecting toughness to his base, not nuanced strategy. His reflex is to play up external threats for domestic gain.
A second Trump presidency would likely see these combustible dynamics return, but in an even more extreme form without the guardrails of seasoned advisors. Trump purged the seasoned professionals from his national security team during his first term. His re-election campaign is now guided by hardline acolytes like John Bolton who demand ever harsher measures against China.
The few remaining moderate voices would further diminish in a new Trump administration. He would feel vindicated filling key posts with loyalists bent on enacting his bellicose China vision. They would steer policy in a more confrontational direction, unbound by institutional constraints that frustrated Trump’s first term.
For example, Trump would likely withdraw from the Biden-Xi climate agreements as a needless concession. Aggressive technology restrictions and indictments of Chinese researchers could be standard procedure. Provocative shows of force near Taiwan would increase, while diplomatic channels atrophy from neglect. Such mounting hostility raises the risk of rash miscalculations leading to kinetic conflict. With his inner circle stoking tensions, and absent the calming presence of military brass, Trump could override cautious Pentagon advice in a crisis over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Likewise, China could misread signals from a dysfunctional White House and overreach militarily, triggering an escalating spiral. Even absent armed combat, economic decoupling would accelerate as China retaliates against Trump’s unilateral provocations.
The broader damage would be immense if Trump’s America discards engagement to wage a one-sided crusade against the Chinese government, people and companies. Xi views stability in relations as key to China’s development. Trump disregards interdependence and frames U.S.-China ties as a zero-sum struggle.
While friction is inevitable between great powers competing to shape the 21st century, pragmatism on both sides has precluded a complete rupture. But Trump’s pugnacity dashes hopes of managing strategic differences. He casts rival nations as villains, eschewing nuance for confrontation and drama. This belligerence would undermine U.S. leadership worldwide. Trump scorns traditional allies, withdrawal from global institutions and repudiates partnerships. His hostility toward immigration and diversity betrays America’s ideals. Autocratic rulers in Russia and China would gain confidence to aggressively expand their systems and spheres of influence.
Proclaiming the singular priority of narrowly defined U.S. self-interest, Trump disdains shouldering global burdens. He touts abandoning security commitments to Taiwan and Ukraine, wishing to deal away their interests for vague American gains. But such expedient appeasement signals hazardous unreliability that degrades U.S. alliances and credibility.
Domestically, Trump fuels polarisation undermining faith in democracy and the rule of law. Stoking division for electoral gain risks emboldening extremist forces. Trump’s seditious election lies already sparked the 6th January insurrection, earning a rebuke from normally apolitical corporate leaders.
How could Washington effectively pressure Beijing on human rights when Trump’s America grows more unjust and chaotic? Autocracy gains moral high ground over dysfunctional US democracy. Rights advocates worldwide lose inspiration when America forsakes its ideals under vain, unstable leaders.
In sum, Trump’s return would mean renouncing the constructive China policy Biden painstakingly rebuilt. Erratic unilateralism would again become Washington’s default, decoupling would accelerate and military brinksmanship would increase. The risk of catastrophic miscalculation rises when fanatics steer great powers. Rather than blindly stumbling into conflict, pragmatists across both parties must unify to temper polarity and safeguard U.S. interests. America must rally democracies to check authoritarian aggression, avoiding self-inflicted wounds from internal turmoil. Biden’s legacy could be prudently managing international competition without sacrificing global leadership on issues like climate and nuclear proliferation.
Trump claims he alone can solve intractable crises, but his presidency exacerbated every major challenge. Only broad vision and steady wisdom in Washington, mirrored by enlightened leadership in Beijing, offer hope for avoiding a new Cold War that would imperil planetary progress.