Commentary |
6 November 2020

A dysfunctional America helps China – but hurts Australia and our region

It doesn’t matter to Beijing who wins the presidential election. But a divided America may translate into an isolated Australia. Originally published in The Guardian.

Natasha Kassam
Natasha Kassam

As the US presidential election rolls into its fourth day of counting, Chinese leaders are not necessarily joining much of the world in frantically hitting refresh for updated vote tallies.

As America edges towards a Biden victory in painful slow motion, there is no sense of urgency in Beijing, which benefits from the prolonged uncertainty.

Chinese leaders – and many of its citizens – believe the United States is in terminal decline and that President Donald Trump has hastened the inevitable. The troubling story of decay in America paints a different picture in China from that in the rest of the world: the authoritarian model of politics and economics is just as good, if not better, than the liberal democratic model of the “west”.

The coronavirus pandemic had already started the toppling dominos. China recovered from its disastrous response, wielding state capacity like an authoritarian sword to contain Covid-19. By contrast, the US has surrendered to the pandemic, tragically with a death toll 60 times that of China. The successes of democratic smaller nations, from Australia to Taiwan, barely register in Beijing.

The four-day election count (so far) and divided polity are seen as further evidence of the wounds in US democracy. So too the increasingly erratic claims made by Trump that undermine US democratic institutions. These are chalked up as wins in Beijing’s column.

More wins, from a Chinese perspective, are coming, and many in Australia’s immediate region. Beijing has threatened over $5bn exports from Australia. The issue has gained less traction than usual as eyes are glued to the circus that US politics has paraded for four years.

China has also been extending olive branches across south-east Asia, providing technical assistance and protective equipment in the pandemic and attempting to repair the reputational hit that Covid-19 caused. Many have made deals with China guaranteeing preferential access if a Chinese vaccine candidate is approved.

This vacuum was left by the US. When it comes to global public health, America has literally left the building. Ensnared in its own pandemic crisis, the world’s largest economy abandoned the World Health Organization. US allies are among the countries that China has promised priority access to vaccines, including the Philippines and Thailand.

With the US missing in action, Australia has had to go it alone. Canberra has looked to counter China’s efforts, promising more than $500m in “vaccine diplomacy” across the region.

China may struggle to find these opportunities if Biden is inaugurated. A globalist at heart, he has promised to reposition the US on the international stage and re-join the WHO. Australia should embrace that prospect.

But for Beijing, the outcome of the US presidential election changes few of its policy settings. The Trump administration’s tough stance towards China is a rare glimpse of unity in a divided country.

A potential Biden administration would continue to challenge China in most fields, including trade and technology. And any instinct by a potential president Biden to nominate Obama-era officials would need to get past the inevitable China-hawk test if the Republican-majority Senate remains.

Tough China policy is also good politics in the US – as it is in Australia. Both Australian and American publics have soured on China as more evidence of China’s aggression and human rights abuses have come to light.

One difference may be that a Biden administration would be better coordinated with partners and allies on China policy. Under Trump, US policy oscillated from praising Xi Jinping to attempting regime change. A stable and consultative approach would be music to Australia’s proverbial ears, as it faces the brunt of China’s economic coercion with little backup or support. Biden could also be convinced to revive the ailing World Trade Organization, though US concerns pre-dated Trump.

Still, who wins the US election matters much more to Australia than China.

A weaker United States, led by a president elected in a messy and marginal victory, would only make China more confident. And a new administration, distracted by domestic turmoil, may lack the bandwidth to wake up to the urgent support needed in Australia, and the broader region. A divided America may translate into an isolated Australia. And this, in turn, would embolden China.

• Natasha Kassam is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute