Beijing eyes Trump's 2020 strategy for clues on deal

BEIJING • As the United States and China restart trade talks, few in Beijing see a clear pathway to a lasting deal.

Pessimism dominated conversations last week among bureaucrats, government advisers and researchers in Beijing, following the latest truce between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Most saw Mr Trump's election strategy as the paramount factor for whether a deal was possible in the short term.

"Mr Trump's biggest aim is re-election in 2020," said Mr Wei Jianguo, former vice-minister of commerce and now a vice-chairman of the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges. "All of his actions are aimed towards it."

More than a year after Mr Trump first levied punitive tariffs on Beijing, the conflict between the world's two largest economies has only widened, as both Mr Trump and Mr Xi face political pressure to resist key demands from the other side. Slowing growth and threats against major companies from both countries have further raised the stakes heading into next year.

Many Chinese officials were reluctant to discuss the 2020 US election out of fear they could be accused of Russian-style meddling.

Yet two schools of thought have emerged on Mr Trump's political calculus.

One was that he must deliver a deal on China heading into next year to please his base, and would therefore eventually relent to Beijing's demands.

The other was that he would drag things out through the campaign, particularly if the economy and stock market held up, since he faced a field of Democrats who basically agree with him on getting tough with China.

LONG-DRAWN-OUT AFFAIR

The current competition is about who is strong, who will dominate the world in the future. It's a chess war.

'' ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR SHOU HUISHENG, from the Beijing Language and Culture University, on the US-China trade conflict.

 
 
 

Despite all of Mr Trump's provocations over the past few years, some in China actually think he will give them a better deal. Mr Trump is a pragmatist, this argument goes, and after he wins re-election, he would rather make friends with China than keep battling it.

This view reflects deep-seated concerns among some in the Chinese establishment about the Democrats - and particularly former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state for four years during the Obama administration.

"The Chinese people and think-tanks have bad impressions of Democrats and Hillary Clinton," said Mr Wei.

"The biggest problem with Mr Trump is that he is unpredictable and doesn't always do what he says he will do, but he gives the impression of being someone you can deal with."

Still, another prevalent concern is whether Mr Trump is too unpredictable to trust.

"I don't think Mr Xi would like to see Mr Trump re-elected," said Professor Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs adviser to the State Council and director of Renmin University's Centre on American Studies in Beijing. "Any Democrat would be less brutal."

No matter what happens next year, though, most in Beijing agree that China needs to be prepared for a protracted confrontation.

Associate Professor Shou Huisheng at Beijing Language and Culture University said: "The current competition is about who is strong, who will dominate the world in the future. It's a chess war."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2019, with the headline 'Beijing eyes Trump's 2020 strategy for clues on deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe