Written by Julius Birch
On the 12th of October, the Biden administration released its first National Security Strategy brief, a 48-page document outlining the administration’s assessment of US national security for the 21st century. The People’s Republic of China is identified as a major long-term threat. Another document recently released by the Bureau of Industry and Security details a range of export controls on advanced microelectronics components, intended to hobble China’s capacity for technological advancement and economic growth. The Biden administration has identified China as a tremendous long-term threat to US interests and is willing to pull no punches. However, Joe Biden’s first term is already halfway through. Despite several running criminal investigations, Donald Trump has repeatedly hinted he would run for president again in 2024, and it seems he still has the base to do so. 61% of Republicans would still want him to run if he were criminally charged, according to a recent poll, and according to the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "his core support remains intact regardless of the results of the investigation”. As such, it’s well worth pondering the implications of his re-election for international security. How would the famously erratic and impulsive President Trump conduct his trans-Pacific policy in 2024?
Trump’s relations with China during the presidency
During the 2016 election cycle, the eventual victor would produce many a controversial soundbite, but none were repeated quite so often as ‘America First’ and ‘China’. Claiming the US had become entangled in a web of foreign alliances and agreements that were not in her interest, Trump promised that, were he to become president, he would reassess America’s international obligations – and if they were not beneficial, withdraw from them without hesitation. He promised to bring back manufacturing jobs that had gone to China. He would, in short, make US interests a priority in their foreign policy once more.
Upon becoming president, Trump certainly appeared to make good on his promises, and the China front was no exception. At Trump’s direction, the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a proposed trade agreement to lower mutual trade barriers among a number of countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. A trade war was instigated, the Trump administration laying tariffs on the import of Chinese goods, to which China responded in kind. Policies such as these, as well as inflammatory rhetoric, were quite sufficient to satisfy Trump’s followers.
However, time revealed the inefficiency, inadequacy, or simply misguided nature of these policies. The TPP had been lauded as a strategic move to “prevent China from writing the rules of the world economy,” increasing economic growth for the US and friendly nations in the Asian-Pacific region. Leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the groundwork for which had been laid during the Obama administration – gave China an opportunity to fill the power vacuum in the region left by the US. In 2019, Forbes claimed that “his tariff-obsessed approach is far too narrow to address the genuine challenges China poses to American hegemony over the coming decades,” while those very same tariffs were causing problems for small American farmers and manufacturers. In short, Trump’s approach did little to truly counter the Chinese challenge and often caused more harm than good.
Meanwhile, the 44th president had no words of praise for his successor’s stance toward China. He has claimed Biden is afraid of China because his son, Hunter, is being blackmailed after taking a large amount of money, compelling Biden to craft a China policy that is not as strong as it should be. This is a strange claim for him to make; not only has the Biden administration’s NSS brief clearly marked China as the major long-term geopolitical rival to the US, but Biden also left in place a number of Trump-Era tariffs. The Democrat party, as a whole, has come to generally hold a more hostile view of China during the years of the Trump administration, and as Biden’s first term rolls past the halfway point it has become clear that it has not been soft on China. Trump’s criticism looks more and more like political mud-slinging.
So what kind of policy on China could we expect if Trump manages to win a second term? At first glance, it seems like things will go on as usual. Biden’s attitude to China has been no softer than his predecessor’s, and there seems to be little reason to think Trump will have changed his mind. The threat China poses to the United States’ status as a world leader has not gone away in the past four years. In fact, it has only grown.
On the other hand, Trump is infamous for his unpredictability. During his term as president, he became infamous for not reading security documents or intelligence briefs, and the National Security Council had been told to “keep policy papers to a single page and include lots of graphics and maps.” His public statements and the 140-character stream of consciousness his Twitter account offered painted an unflattering, unprofessional image of the President as a man with many whims and few filters. It does not seem entirely out of character for him to undo many Biden-era measures taken against China simply because Biden implemented them.
The view from across the water
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, it seems that China would be quite pleased with Trump winning a second term. During the 2020 election cycle, numerous articles were published detailing the Chinese view: Trump was claimed to be “easy to read”, and reportedly disinterested in many issues that other Western leaders placed a premium on, such as Hong Kong or the Chinese human rights record. His administration has been criticized for a lack of clear goals or strategy with regard to its Chinese policy. “What Beijing would really fear is a concerted U.S. policy and a coordinated international policy that constrains China.” CNBC wrote in July 2020. Considering Trump’s ‘America First’ policy and apparent eagerness to withdraw from the international sphere, it’s not hard to see why their geopolitical rivals across the Pacific would applaud his re-election.
For the USA, a second Trump administration would mean governmental confusion, coupled with a shrinking of international reach and power. For China, it would mean another four years of opportunities, as the eminent global power seeks to decouple from the international system and turn inward under chaotic, disconnected leadership. For America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere, Trump’s re-election would demand firm unity, a strong political will, and a greater capacity for self-defense than they currently possess.
About the author: Julius Birch
Julius Birch is a student of History at Utrecht University with a wide range of interests within the field of geopolitics and international security. Currently, he is writing his undergraduate thesis, applying modern theory to a historical case study.