Influential academics in Beijing fear he will turbocharge his attacks to generate support and distract from domestic problems, such as unemployment and the devastating coronavirus death toll that has highlighted Trump’s slow response to the pandemic.
“These guys are crazy. There’s nothing they won’t do to hurt China, to try to destroy China, even when it comes at a cost that previous administrations believed unacceptable to the U.S.,” said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international studies at Peking University who advises the Chinese government.
“As the chances of him getting reelected diminish, we worry he will try to provoke a crisis with China.”
When Trump took office, many here thought that he was looking for a tweetable victory in his trade war with Beijing. Some quietly cheered him on, hoping that he might inject momentum into market-oriented reforms that Chinese leader Xi Jinping had promised but not delivered.
Now, advisers to the ruling Communist Party concede they may have been wrong to think there would be limits to what Trump would do against China.
The administration has expanded its campaign against Huawei Technologies to include Chinese-owned social media apps WeChat and TikTok — the latter hugely popular with young Americans — and Chinese students in the United States, a major source of revenue for American universities.
This has come as U.S. coronavirus deaths near 200,000 and after Trump acknowledged that he played down the risks to avoid panicking people. Fatalities in mainland China, where the virus started late last year but was contained through widespread lockdowns, stand at 4,634.
Trump has sought to deflect criticism of his pandemic response, repeatedly blaming China for what he has termed the “Wuhan virus” and the offensive “kung flu.”
“The strategic rivalry and the reversal of globalization were already happening, but covid-19 has intensified and accelerated” these shifts, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University and a doyen of Beijing’s academic establishment.
“Trump is a very special guy. It’s difficult to find any rationale or intellectual background for what he has done,” Shi said.
Just as concern about China’s rise has become a bipartisan issue in Washington, so too has it spread among the American public. The latest Pew Research Center survey of Americans’ views of China found 73 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the country, up 26 percentage points since 2018.
Indeed, the president recently has taken up human rights issues, such as China’s abuses in the Xinjiang region and its crackdown in Hong Kong, with a vigor unseen previously. This is prompting predictions that Beijing’s actions toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea will be next on his target list.
Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province that should be “reunited” with it — though Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China, which was founded in 1949. China’s current leader, Xi, has made increasingly assertive noises about seizing control of the democratic, self-ruled island, portraying it as an existential issue as young Taiwanese feel ever more distant from China.
Xi has also overseen an aggressive military expansion in the South China Sea, reclaiming land in disputed waters to build artificial islands, then constructing military and industrial installations on them.
Given the intensity of Trump’s anti-China approach, the possibility of a limited American attack on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea or the prospect of the Trump administration forging official diplomatic relations with Taiwan suddenly seem plausible.
“It’s still not likely but before, the possibility was unimaginable. Now it’s imaginable,” said Shi.
The United States has long recognized that Beijing has a “One China” policy that asserts that it is the only legitimate Chinese state. Instead of a full embassy and ambassador, the United States has an “American Institute” and a “director” in Taiwan.
But the Trump administration has been testing the boundaries of that arrangement, selling increasing amounts of military equipment to Taiwan and recently sending Health Secretary Alex Azar there, making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet Taiwan’s president in four decades. This week, Undersecretary of State Keith Krach also visited Taiwan, prompting China to conduct combat drills nearby.
Meanwhile, China has been holding military drills involving long-range bombers and other aircraft in the South China Sea, and its ships have confronted American naval vessels that have been conducting freedom-of-navigation operations.
Increased U.S. Navy activity around the islands — intended to demonstrate American commitment to regional allies and stability — has increased the chances of confrontation, either deliberate or accidental.
“People are saying that they may try to destroy some of the islands China controls in the South China Sea or that they may restore diplomatic relations with Taiwan,” Jia said. “In these circumstances, China has to fight back. Their policy is based on politics and xenophobia rather than interests and values.”
The concerns about a dramatic escalation before Nov. 3 have altered China’s calculus. Beijing usually prefers for presidents to be reelected because it means stability and dealing with a known quantity, said Jingzhou Tao, a Beijing lawyer and astute observer of Chinese politics.
In the current situation, the opposite is true.
“If Trump is reelected, then a Cold War becomes more likely and a hot war becomes possible,” Tao said.
It’s not that Biden would be softer on China — his line appears almost as tough, although his tone differs starkly — but that Trump seems to be set on a kind of regime change.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien last month called Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea “ridiculous” and said Washington was “not going to back down from its long-held principles that the world’s oceanways and international waters should be free for navigation, and the same with space and with air rights in international airspace.”
While a Biden administration would be more likely to try to pressure Beijing to return to the relative openness of the Deng Xiaoping era, Shi said the Trump administration wants to eliminate Communist Party rule.
For the party, this makes this U.S. election feel like an almost existential threat.
In a recent column in the nationalist Global Times, the well-connected editor Hu Xijin wrote that “the risk of the Chinese mainland being forced into a war has risen sharply.”
“China must be a country that dares to fight. And this should be based on both strength and morality,” he wrote. “We have the power in our hands, we are reasonable, and we stand up to guard our bottom line without fear. In this way, whether China is engaged in a war or not, it will accumulate the respect of the world.”