On 10 July, US President Donald Trump said that relations with China are severely damaged, in response to a question about whether it is still possible to sign a trade agreement with China to finalise a deal signed between the two in January. Many observers doubted the January agreement would be implemented, and they were correct since Beijing refused to keep its side of the bargain of buying US merchandise worth $200 billion. Thus, it was understandable to doubt a second agreement would be signed, especially after serious tensions in bilateral relations on several issues — most notably Beijing’s uproar over Trump’s continued claims that China hid important information that resulted in the Covid-19 pandemic spreading and causing a gruelling economic crisis in the US and the world. There are also chronic disputes over Taiwan, Chinese military movements in the Pacific (most recently Hong Kong) and human rights violations in China.
Now, we can also add former National Security adviser John Bolton, who wrote in his recent book that Trump begged the president of China to help him win the next presidential elections. Trump’s opponents zoomed in on this to sabotage his image in front of US public opinion, and portray him as someone who is willing to humiliate the US’s national dignity in order to remain in office for a second term. Although Trump’s supporters deny this version of events, the matter has made the president double down on his attack on China to prove the opposite.
Trump’s failure to manage relations with China is not the only blunder in his foreign policy. While foreign policy issues have little influence over US voters, Trump’s opponents are trying to connect his foreign policy failures to the US’s weak influence over rivals and adversaries which could pose a threat to US interests and security, and undermine the economy.
Joe Biden focused his attack on Trump’s foreign policy, accusing him of failing to eradicate the Islamic State group (IS) by prematurely withdrawing most US troops from Syria; abandoning the Kurds who fought and defeated IS in most areas under the terrorist group’s control; and the peace plan Trump suggested for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which Biden promised to withdraw, sponsoring talks between the two sides if he wins the White House.
Trump’s policy on Iran is also in the crosshairs. Biden accused Trump of jeopardising the US’s national security when he decided to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, commander of Al-Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in January. Biden is likely to continue thumping Trump on Iran and accusing him of failing to mobilise the US’s allies in the Gulf against Iran. Trump attempted to reconcile Qatar with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, but failed. In December 2019, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, attended a conference in Doha and addressed the Iranian threat and urged Gulf countries to end their quarrel with Qatar and become a united front in the face of Iran. The US wants a united front of allies in the Gulf to confront growing Iranian threats, but these calls have failed and prevented the Trump administration from resolving a very complicated issue in its Middle East foreign policy before the presidential race, according to news reports in the US.
Rebecca Grant, a national security analyst and director of IRIS Independent Research in Washington DC, said: “If President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can end the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) rift, that will be a diplomatic victory — and one of the few within reach before the November election.”
Another foreign policy issue that Trump’s administration has fumbled is its failure to convince Ethiopia to sign a fair deal that Egypt had accepted and Addis Ababa avoided, until the matter reached the UN Security Council and African Union. Meanwhile, Turkey’s intervention in Libya and Ankara’s defiance of Washington’s European allies and NATO by buying defence systems from Russia are also issues that cannot be ignored or hidden.
The Trump administration has stumbled on many foreign policy issues that will overshadow the election campaigns of Trump and Biden. However, if Biden cannot link these failures with the direct interests of US voters — who are not usually interested in foreign policy — then their impact on Trump’s re-election will be marginal. Especially if Trump and his team take advantage of some of Biden’s positions, such as defending Asian Americans on 18 May and accusing Trump of inciting hate against them after the Covid-19 outbreak, at a time when many believe the loyalty of Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, is not certain and that Chinese students studying in the US are spying for their country, especially in the fields of technology, and medical and pharmaceutical research.
This negative image that equates China as a country with people of Chinese origin who are now US citizens, or Chinese students studying in the US, has not yet been gauged in studies or opinion polls in the US, but is expressed from time to time by public figures. For example, after Biden defended the Chinese community in the US, Trump’s son tweeted: “Joe Biden choosing to defend China on the day they are credibly accused of trying to hack the companies that are trying to come up with a cure for the coronavirus, that they started and enabled to spread, is a new low even for someone who’s been bought and paid for by China!”
The tweet ignored that fact that Biden has repeatedly said that if he is elected, he will hold China accountable and censure it for its role in spreading the pandemic.
The tweet also intended to portray Biden as defending China, while in fact he was talking about not punishing those of Asian origin because of China.
Since Trump understands the danger of Biden’s accusation of inaction towards China, his counterpunch is to bring up Biden’s relationship with China to prove the latter is the real friend of China, and that Beijing supports Biden in the upcoming elections. Trump’s campaign has released advertisements about Biden’s history as Barack Obama’s vice president, including statements in which Biden said he met with China’s current president on several occasions starting in 2011, when Xi Jinping was second-in-command. Since 2016, Biden also promoted his “friendship” with the Chinese leader, and in May 2019, said the world’s second largest economy “[is] not competition for us, and [its leaders] are not bad folks”.
While Trump’s relationship with China is not the only foreign policy hurdle in his way, this relationship is more pivotal than others in judging the success of Trump’s foreign policy as he approaches the battle of re-election.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly