As the US presidential poll due in early November became a two-horse race with the withdrawal of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign greeted the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, with an attack ad accusing him of standing up for China.
While Trump is putting America and its working people first, the narrative goes, Biden, former senator and vice president under Barack Obama, is shilling for American corporates who have outsourced manufacturing to China. More immediately, the Trump campaign argues that Biden is shielding a China, which kept the world in the dark about the coronavirus.
Too simplistic? Perhaps. Many have called the attack ad misleading. But no one does nuance in the election season. The more interesting question is whether the charge against Biden will stick. As the US becomes the largest victim of the coronavirus — over 22,000 dead and counting — the question of China’s role in triggering the pandemic has inevitably become a major domestic political issue, which cuts across the divide between Republicans and Democrats.
The American argument over China in an election year — Trump has already branded Biden as “China Joe” — comes at a time when the relations between Washington and Beijing have been heading downhill for a while. By the time the elections are over, the stage might well be set for a profound rearrangement of the relations between the US and China.
But first to the “foreign hand”. In India, the role of the “foreign hand” and its power to generate political emotion endures. Last week, we saw how quickly the outrage was built up over the claim that India decided to export Hydroxychloroquine to the US under the presumed threat of retaliation from President Trump.
Thanks to the bitter legacy of Partition and the accumulated grievances since then, India and Pakistan are forever the “foreign hands” in each other’s domestic politics. Those who deal with India’s other neighbours know how the “foreign hand” of India is always the first factor to explain any internal development.
Until recently, it was assumed that the problem of the “foreign hand” was a feature of weak developing countries and their insecure political elites. But in the last few years, we have seen the politics of “foreign hand” infect most developed states. The concerns of the smaller European countries in Central Europe living under the shadow of a large Russia are perhaps understandable. But, why are the rich and mighty Western Europe and the US so anxious?
Russian interference in the domestic politics of the West, it is argued, is born out of Russian political resentments being channelled by President Vladimir Putin. And that his investment in the dark arts of disinformation and social media manipulation has come in handy. Moscow certainly had a political incentive to poke into the domestic politics of the Western world. After all, the Obama Administration was touting the virtues of the internet in forcing open Russian politics dominated by Putin. What goes around surely comes back.
The problem was not the extent of Russian involvement or the nature of its impact on the outcome of the 2016 elections. It was finding something to (politically) hang Trump with. As Trump gained ground in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Democrats inevitably began to dig for dirt on him. (Both parties do this.)
But it was only after Trump’s unexpected victory that the Russia story acquired a life of its own. Democrats refused to come to terms with Trump, whom they saw as a “pretender” in the White House. And “Russian collusion” became the weapon to beat him with. The intense polarisation of US politics around the Russia question has had a powerful impact on foreign policy. To the naked eye, it would seem Russia with its GDP of $1.6 trillion can hardly pose a challenge to the US that stands at $22 trillion. Yet, the US political debate was obsessed with the “Russian threat” and it prevented Washington from even limited cooperation with Moscow based on self-interest. Russia also clouded the US establishment thinking on the nature of external challenges confronting it.
As the virus and China move to the top of the US domestic agenda, their impact on Washington’s relations with Beijing is bound to be significant. And unlike Russia, China is far more central to the US economy and a powerful political challenger to America’s global leadership.
When he launched his presidential campaign last year, Biden downplayed the economic threat from China and underlined the importance of continuing political engagement with Beijing. But Biden was at odds with many in the Democratic Party, including Sanders and his socialist supporters. They back calls for a measure of economic decoupling from China.
Powerful interests — in Wall Street and Silicon Valley — certainly caution against an American breakup with China. Meanwhile, the security establishment has been moving towards a strategy of balancing China, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Many in the Democratic Party that support human-rights centred foreign policy are equally eager to challenge the “authoritarian China”.
While Trump tries to tar Biden as the “Manchurian candidate”, Beijing is said to be betting on the former vice president as the man who might yet save the bilateral relationship. Under pressure to prove Trump wrong, Biden is very likely to adopt a more critical stance, at least for the sake of appearances, against Beijing.
When domestic contestation overwhelms foreign policy discourse, there is no knowing where it might lead to. What we do know is that China has replaced Russia as “the foreign hand” in American politics.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 14 with the headline “Trump versus ‘China Joe’”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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