China has no favorite in Biden-Trump race, US intelligence finds

US spies believe China’s leaders see little or no upside to the looming electoral showdown between President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump. 

Ahead of next week’s first debate of the presidential campaign, US intelligence agencies assess that China has no clear preference between the two candidates, according to American officials, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public assessments. 

The conclusion suggests that officials in Beijing, like their counterparts in Washington, believe that ties between the world’s two largest economies will continue on their long-term downward trajectory despite a recent increase in high-level meetings billed as efforts to manage differences. In recent years, the two countries have clashed over everything from technology to human rights and the South China Sea.

The US assessment is matched in interviews with Chinese officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. They say the view in Beijing is that both candidates are intent on containing China and disrupting its rise.

“Neither is a perfect candidate to put it mildly,” said Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat who served as translator to the late leader Deng Xiaoping. “Biden is a Cold War warrior, who doesn’t care if he pushes the world into conflict, while Trump will probably impose sanctions and tariffs on China in pursuit of his America-first agenda.”

Spokespeople for the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on intelligence assessments of how China views the 2024 vote. Asked about the US elections, Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said China does not comment on “US domestic affairs.”

A second Trump administration could pose significant problems for Beijing. 

In his first term, Trump declared a trade war on China, increased high-level ties with Taiwan and oversaw a reorientation of US military strategy to counter Beijing. By the end of his time in office, it was routine for officials in both Beijing and Washington to refer in private to ties between the nations as a new Cold War

Chinese officials believe that a second Trump administration would likely be characterized by provocative pronouncements, unpredictable policymaking and a renewed push for anti-China measures, US and Chinese officials said. During Trump’s campaign, he’s already floated the idea of 60% tariffs on Chinese-made goods,

Liu, the Chinese embassy spokesman, said that raising tariffs on Chinese goods would drive up the cost of goods, “inflicting more loss on American companies and consumers” while damaging global supply chains.

The flip side of these concerns, Chinese officials believe, is that a Trump presidency could weaken Washington’s ties with its allies, opening opportunities for Beijing. The former president’s first term in office was characterized by repeated friction with European allies over defense spending, as well as periodic complaints about the cost of the protection the US affords Japan and South Korea. 

One Chinese official told Bloomberg that Trump might also prove more amenable to doing deals than Biden, suggesting that Chinese concessions on trade could open the way for US concessions over sensitive issues for China such as Taiwan.

But the prospect of a second Biden term offers little comfort to Beijing. 

The central concern for Chinese policymakers would be Biden’s likely push to strengthen regional partnerships to push back against Chinese assertiveness, according to US and Chinese officials. 

Over the past four years, China has routinely denounced groups such as the “Quad” comprised of the US, Australia, India and Japan and “Aukus,” a defense pact among Australia, the UK and the US, as efforts to contain China. At a recent defense forum in Singapore, a Chinese delegate accused the US of attempting to build an Asian NATO. 

At the same time, Biden “needs to pay more attention to the views of its allies, which are likely to call for caution and moderation. This may be good for China,” Jia Qingguo, a prominent academic and standing committee member of Beijing’s top political advisory body, said in an interview this month.

Liu said the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy “is essentially about division, confrontation and detrimental to peace” and that its aim is to “encircle China.” 

US intelligence leaders and senators have warned that a host of actors — including China — could also seek to influence the outcome of the election. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN the US had seen evidence of Chinese attempts to “influence and arguably” interfere in the 2024 vote. 

Still, officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told journalists in a briefing that Beijing has so far taken a cautious approach to such interference because it’s aware of the blowback that such efforts might cause. 

No matter who prevails in the November election, officials in Washington and Beijing are girding for more tense periods.

“From the Chinese perspective, we just need to sit tight,” said Gao, the former diplomat. “Whoever wins, China needs to deal with them as they are, rather than hoping for the unrealistic.” –BLOOMBERG