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All Aboard? Why China Might be on the Trump Train for 2020

Trump takes the stage in Tulsa (Photo by Doug Mills, The New York Times)

It’s June of 2020, and the President of the United States waves to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s his first rally since the COVID-19 lockdown and there’s a veritable sea of red MAGA caps present, but scarcely a mask in sight. Laughter erupts as he labels the disease that had killed over 120 thousand Americans at the time (and another 100,000 since) the “Klung Flu” and predictable cheers spout as he lavishes praise on his own handling of the “Chinese virus”. It’s far from the first time China has been in his crosshairs, and yet many experts say Beijing is hoping for a Trump victory in the 2020 election.

Distasteful puns are just the tip of the Trump administration’s anti-China stance. Relations between the world’s two largest economic powers have deteriorated in recent years, characterized largely by a Trump-initiated trade war that has seen tariffs placed on billions of dollars of goods on both sides. Additional disagreements have included American military cooperation and arms deals with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, corporate espionage and intellectual property rights, and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. So how can Beijing possibly be pro-Trump?

While American politics in 2020 is deeply divided on nearly every issue, Sino-relations remain surprisingly bipartisan. Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden has also claimed he would have a “tough-on-China” stance, and many agree he would implement it in a more coherent way.

However, Beijing’s presidential preference may have little to do with who will damage Chinese interests more, and more to do with who will damage American interests more. Trump’s brand of “America First” politics has seen him launch insults and implement tariffs on dozens of countries, disrupting positive relations with allies and alienating more neutral states.

“(He has been) breaking the system we have come to rely on, and it has upended much of the trade dynamics that were there,” says Finnish transatlantic relations expert Kristiina Helenius. “Europeans are overall in a state of uncertainty and fright.”

Trump’s particular vision to “Make America Great Again” appears to involve withdrawing from the international scene, leaving space for China to opportunistically occupy. Furthermore, the president routinely launches scathing criticisms at the free press and conducts himself in ways that appear to undermine democratic ideals, actions that serve to legitimize the Communist Party’s ethos on the international stage.

Back at the Tulsa rally, Trump continued to gesture emphatically at the crowd. “He never did anything against China, Joe Biden. And that’s why they want him to win. They want him to win so badly.”

The crowd jeered.

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