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April 26, 2020

Responding To: COVID-19 and the Future of U.S.-China Relations

COVID-19 and the Role of China in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Campaign

Evan Medeiros, Wang Jisi, and Michael Green

Evan Medeiros

I think in the upcoming presidential election you're going to see China be as much, if not more, of an issue as the 1992 election after Tiananmen. In fact I think it's probably going to be worse.

The Tiananmen Massacre was repugnant to many Americans, but COVID-19 is very different because for many, China is not just doing something that America doesn't like, it's a China that looks very, very dangerous: it's undermining our health, it's undermining our economy, and ultimately our security. So I think we should brace ourselves for a period of a very high politicization of China in the U.S.-China relationship.

The question is, how resilient is the relationship? Even though there will be a steady stream of Americans saying just ignore the election rhetoric, and that policy is policy, I don't think we are in a world anymore where election rhetoric doesn't create lasting damage.

Wang Jisi

The general feeling in China is that the United States does not want China to stand up as a global power so it doesn't matter who controls the White House. The public doesn't really have a good sense of a political struggle in the United States or of the polarization between the Democrats and Republicans. The general sense is that most Americans, they have ill feelings about the Chinese and that there is some racism and prejudice against the Chinese population in the United States.

More sophisticated analysts of course have a better understanding of what the United States is doing and even discern some differences of opinion within the administration itself, between Trump and some of his aides. These observers are watching the presidential election campaign very closely at this moment.

Michael Green

We have to think about how do we build much stronger patterns of cooperation, trust, and strategic dialogue in a context that is now largely driven by competition for the foreseeable future.

The election will be critical. In the Reagan-Carter election, Reagan promised to re-normalize relations with Taiwan, and a few years later had one of the best relations with China ever. Bill Clinton said he wouldn't cuddle the butchers of Beijing after Tiananmen, and then he brought China into the final stage of the WTO. And my boss, George W. Bush, said during the election that China is a strategic competitor and not a strategic partner, and he and Hu Jintao had a pretty productive relationship.

So the elections are cyclical in a way. The China theme can rise and fall depending on circumstances, but we are not in a purely cyclical period in the relationship. It's structurally different.

These reflections, drawn from an online dialogue, have been edited for length and clarity.

Other Responses