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For Trump, a China trade war election

Hand putting ballot in box
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Short of a highly improbable climbdown by China, President Trump, confronting a strong re-election challenge from Democrats, is likely to maintain an aggressive public posture toward Beijing at least through the 2020 campaign cycle, experts tell Axios.

The big picture: Standing tall against China is one of the very few issues with strong bipartisan popularity across the country, which will make Trump hesitant to let it go, especially given the strong economy.

  • For China's Xi Jinping, too, there is much greater political safety in not caving to Trump.
  • "Whether or not we get a deal on trade, the U.S.-China relationship is heading towards greater confrontation," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group.

What's happening: As we reported Monday, health care appears to be a key bipartisan campaign issue. But for Trump, China could be as much or more important, exemplifying what he sees as his key attribute — strength against the foes he sees everywhere.

  • In a piece yesterday, the NYT's Trip Gabriel reported that Trump's China stance is helping him to solidify support among blue-collar workers in Ohio.
  • Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, one of the two dozen Democratic candidates for president, told Gabriel that when local people observe Trump's China policy, they see that "at least he's punching somebody in the face, and no one else is."
  • This dynamic — the deeply visceral support for a sharp-edged approach to China — is likely to change the complexion of the election.

"If anything, I expect Democratic presidential candidates to attack Trump from the hawkish side, as being too accommodating to China by seeking a deal," said Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 

The big picture: Last August and September, we surveyed economists and other experts on the U.S.-China tension, most of whom said they expect the trade war to last at least a year and perhaps longer (see here and here).

  • This week, I asked a half-dozen of them whether their opinion had changed. Some said that the outcome is not locked in — Trump and Xi could have a breakthrough next month at the G20 summit in Osaka, for instance.
  • But all said the likelihood is a trade or cold war lasting through or past the November 2020 election.

Gary Hufbauer, a trade specialist with the Peterson Institute, said the best-case scenario would be that Trump and Xi call a truce through the 2020 election, and agree not to escalate further.

  • As we noted in our 2019 geopolitical forecasts, uppermost in Beijing's mind is the humiliation of the 19th century Opium Wars, when the Chinese were forced into far-reaching concessions. Now, Trump is reinforcing that century-and-a-half-old lesson.
  • "The one key lesson Beijing has taken away from the trade war with the U.S. is they never want to be in a position of such vulnerability again. There’s no trust between the two countries," Bremmer told me.

For now, both countries are flexing their muscles, feeding their mutual political frenzies:

  • This week, Huawei has descended into a full-blown crisis following a Trump executive order last week effectively barring U.S. companies from doing business with the Chinese company.
  • On Monday, Trump slightly softened the order, but tech, mobile carriers and other companies in the U.S., Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have either halted business with Huawei or said they will, report the FT's James Kynge and Mercedes Ruehl. Among them are Google, Intel and Qualcomm.
  • In the U.K., it was the chip designer ARM suspending business with Huawei, reports the BBC's Dave Lee. If the suspension persists, it would be an "'insurmountable' blow to Huawei's business," an analyst told Lee.

On Monday, Xi took his turn with a veiled threat to cut off U.S. supplies of rare earth metals, elements that are crucial to everything from high-tech devices to military jets, writes Bloomberg's David Fickling.

Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "The longer this drags on, and the more it escalates with the sanctions on Huawei, possible Chinese counter-moves on rare earths etc., the more difficult it will be to find a face-saving way for both countries to climb down. And if there’s no room for face-saving compromise, the trade war could certainly extend to November 2020 and beyond."

The bottom line: The brinkmanship is likely to continue as long as the two leaders worry more about saving face and projecting strength than a deal. Trump has already signaled that China will be a pillar of his campaign.

  • On the Democratic side, front-runner Joe Biden has so far been the outlier by calling China a paper tiger, says Axios' Alayna Treene. But he has backtracked and criticized Trump mostly for failing to fight the battle alongside traditional U.S. allies, and may have to retreat further given the politics.