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    Non-resident Fellow, CISS, Tsinghua University,Senior Editor for China’s World Affairs Magazine

    As the 2024 U.S. presidential election unfolds, primary results from both Republican and Democratic camps suggest that, barring unforeseen events, a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is likely in November. But it’s too early to forecast the outcome at this stage, given the myriad questions that remain unanswered.

    Biden’s incumbency advantage appears minimal. First, some voters are concerned about his physical stamina and skeptical of his governing capacity at age 81. Second, his administration’s mishandling of the security crisis at America’s southern border has drawn severe criticism, straining relations between the federal government and the conservative “red states” in the region. Third, during his term, the country’s successful national economic performance has failed gain recognition from the masses. People at lower income levels are struggling with rising costs and Biden’s backing among the working class is eroding. Fourth, Biden’s policy on Gaza has alienated Generation Z, along with Arab and Muslim voters. And finally, the expanding popularity of independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has fragmented some Democratic support.

    Trump has swept through the Republican primary process so far with a string of victories. However, several potholes can be seen on the road ahead. For example, his core base of support alone — white, middle-aged citizens, mainly males with low education — may not be sufficient for victory. Second, exit polls indicate that one-third to one-fourth of Republican voters didn’t vote for Trump. A similar portion clearly stated that they would turn to the Democratic side. Moreover, Nikki Haley, may have dropped out of the race, but she may continue to work against Trump from within the Republican Party, further galvanizing opposition.

    And then there’s the criminal charges. Trump faces 91 felony charges across four cases, all of which loom grimly over his campaign, diverting his focus. These could severely impact his ability to rally support, especially if he is found guilty.

    As always, a handful of swing states will likely decide the result of the U.S. presidential race, particularly key states whose political leanings will only reveal themselves at the eleventh hour. In addition, with eight months remaining, there is plenty of time for unforeseen black swan events to emerge that could radically shift the current trajectory of the Biden-Trump rematch.

    In China, discourse on the topic has reignited, echoing 2020, over whether the country would fare better or worse under a re-elected President Biden or a returning President Trump. Personally, I find such discussions futile. China has no choice or leverage to sway the U.S. election outcome in favor of either candidate. The reality is that China, alongside the rest of the world, can only passively accept the results of the 2024 U.S. presidential race.

    Despite varied perspectives, a common sentiment emerges across the board: America’s strategic competition with China has bipartisan consensus and is unlikely to shift dramatically regardless of the winner. However, the election result could shift the focus and priorities of the competition. The Biden administration has focused on containing and restricting China’s advancements in science, technology and military capabilities by rallying U.S. allies. Meanwhile, a potential second Trump administration promises to resume the trade war with China that marked his first term. This scenario, as advocated in his campaign speeches, could force China to respond, thrusting the U.S.-China relationship into a new period of heightened volatility and uncertainty.

    Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has unequivocally pledged — specifically and directly related to China — to enact tariffs he had previously proposed but not implemented during the first stage of the trade war with China in 2017. This indicates that if re-elected, Trump would impose a 60 percent or higher tariff on all Chinese imports. He also stated he would impose a 100 percent tariff on Chinese automobiles re-exported into the U.S. through Mexico.

    On March 9, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met Trump in the U.S., lending his support to the former president. After returning to Hungary, he told the media that a Trump victory might pave the way for a “major trade agreement” between the U.S. and China. Orban believes Hungary will directly benefit from investments if the U.S. and China resume economic cooperation, and he looks forward to a “great union of worldwide conservatives.”

    Yet, Orban seems naively optimistic: Trump plans to resurrect the Phase One economic and trade agreement with China that he initiated in his first presidency in 2020, targeting structural reforms in China. But given the significant changes in their respective economic structures, bilateral economic and trade relations, negotiating stances, the global economic contexts and changes in the architecture of world trade over the intervening years, it is unlikely that the situation will be as straightforward as merely picking up where they left off.

    Trump’s first presidency was characterized by a lack of structured decision-making, limited governing experience and a haphazard approach to foreign affairs. Some American advocates of a stable U.S.-China relationship are concerned that if Trump were to be re-elected, he might be swayed by those in his circle of influence to pursue what’s been called the “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.” This strategy could involve implementing more forceful and aggressive measures to prioritize American interests, hastening the unification of global conservatives and advocating heightened isolationism within the U.S.

    However, it’s hard to say whether or not Trump has completely changed in the past four years. His ideology, at least, remains unchanged. If he makes a comeback, he will undoubtedly grasp his specific issues aggressively.

    His campaign promises include four actions he says he will take upon returning to the White House:

    • Adopt a negative approach toward U.S. aid to Ukraine, unlike the Biden administration;

    • Initiate a new round in his trade war with China;

    • Repeal some of the pro-clean energy industry policies implemented during the Biden administration; and

    • Attack officials from the Biden administration and Republican Party who he believes have harmed his political security, assets, freedom and family interests over the past four years.

    Just imagine: A Trump election could lead to the cessation of U.S. aid to Ukraine, withdrawal from security commitments to NATO and potentially force NATO countries into direct confrontation with the Russian military in Ukraine. Would the Ukraine crisis abruptly cease or escalate further? And would U.S.-Russia relations shift from severe confrontation to a more positive direction, as some hope or fear? Nobody knows.

    Moreover, a Trump comeback is highly likely to bring a new round in his previous trade war with China, potentially skyrocketing the average U.S. tariff on imported Chinese goods to 60 percent or higher, a triple increase from current levels. What impact would this have on the already fragile global economic and trade landscape, as well as the global supply chain? Who stands to gain, and who stands to lose?

    When it comes to the bigger picture of the U.S.’s overall China policy, if Trump were to abandon Biden’s three-point strategy of “invest, align, compete” or the trichotomy of “competition, confrontation, cooperation” and dismantle the established action bottom lines and operational boundaries across various categories dand issues, what would remain for norms and predictability in U.S.-China relations? Would U.S.-China relations once again spiral into uncertainty and volatility?

    Trump’s return could embolden the U.S. to act arbitrarily on global hotspot issues. What will be the response of the cornered Palestinian people? Will Kim Jong-un, having felt deceived by Trump in 2018, extend an olive branch once more? And what about the Taiwan question?

    A potential Trump return may revive America’s support for fossil energy and once again lead it to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This reneging could result in a worldwide regression in research and development efforts and the promotion of new-energy vehicles. With Europe already taking similar steps, what impact would it have on global energy and automobile markets if the U.S. were to follow suit?

    Four years ago, some envisioned a quadrennial “short-cycle era” of dramatic pendulum swings in U.S. internal and external policy between liberalism and conservatism. Should Trump win re-election this year, such a prediction would essentially come true. Additionally, a “Trump Republican Party” would likely supplant the conventional Republican Party as an anti-establishment force. This scenario could see the U.S. embroiled in internal conflicts, abandoning value-based criteria externally, disregarding non-essential issues and employing every conceivable strategy to secure advantages in vital areas. Such a trajectory risks alienating allies, eroding global trust and diminishing the credibility and capability required to uphold the mantle of “world leader.”

    In the global discourse, few anticipate a better world under a second Trump presidency. Instead, many foresee deeper political upheaval and an accelerated retreat of the U.S. from global affairs. Whether Trump is re-elected or not, the waning U.S. influence and control in the international arena seems irreversible. While a Biden re-election cannot reverse this downward trajectory, a second Trump presidency would signify a complete lack of willingness to maintain influence. If the U.S. retreats, who will step forward to fill the void it leaves behind? Will this unfilled or partially filled void lead to unprecedented turmoil and realignment on the world stage?

    The prospect of a Trump return may be only a transitional phase in the reconstruction of the world order. Signs are manifesting themselves globally, and everything demands reassessment. Europe is on the move, preparing for a sharp turn in its stance toward the U.S. should Trump return to the presidency. This may mean providing spearhead support for Ukraine, preparing to engage directly on the battlefield, promoting military spending relative to GDP and pursuing the creation of a consolidated defense force.

    Similarly, in Asia, countries such as South Korea and Japan have established special task forces to evaluate and prepare for the potential impacts of a Trump-led U.S. on the security and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region.

    What should be China’s course of action? First of all, we must thoroughly contemplate the potential impact of a second Trump term on U.S.-China relations and the international order. I believe that relevant authorities have already prioritized this task. In addition, it is crucial to mitigate the influence of America’s domestic political cycles and wildly veering foreign policies and create enough resilience for U.S.-China relations and China’s own reform and development.

    The stability of U.S.-China relations positively correlates with China’s successful reform and development. This remains true even though China is adjusting its main direction of opening-up, and the priority of U.S.-China relations has changed in China’s overall approach to foreign affairs. This fact will not be altered no matter who becomes president of the U.S. in the future.

    Managing U.S.-China relations and advancing China’s reform and development require navigating challenges akin to rowing against a strong current. The only solution is to overcome short cycles and establish long-term stability — that is, to strengthen the ability to fight waves and guard against risks. In addition to enlarging our boat, we must improve our steering capabilities. Therefore, fostering mutually beneficial cooperation, promoting exchanges, and engaging in dialogue with the U.S. is as critical as bolstering our ability to manage potential conflicts. This remains true regardless of who occupies the White House in the future.

    How should we prepare ourselves for the upcoming negotiations in another potential round of trade conflicts? What measures can we take to prevent needless financial risks and a rapid descent in U.S.-China economic and trade relations initiated by excessive tariffs and the financial risks they entail? Should China step up its efforts to boost overseas GDP?

    Will the U.S. continue its current pattern of curbing China’s progress in science and technology? And will China retaliate with similar countermeasures? How will the roles of governments and leading enterprises of the two countries advance? Will such targeted decoupling gain momentum or slow down?

    Regarding such issues as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, how can we proactively combat separatism, promote reunification and safeguard national security while minimizing the room external actors have to exploit these issues?

    If the climate change agenda loses its sense of urgency, appeal, and common ground in addressing global challenges, could control and governance of artificial intelligence risks substitute as the primary focal point for U.S.-China cooperation? It might seem idealistic as major nations compete for advantageous positions in the technological revolution. However, the rapid evolution of AI suggests that the need for human oversight in technological management could compel the U.S. and China to shift from competition to collaboration.

    These are just a few of the questions that come to mind. Predicting the outcome or consequences of the U.S. election is a challenging task that cannot rely solely on knowledge structures and analytical models.

    The period from now until next January will be relatively stable. We should seize this opportunity to think ahead and proactively foster measures that can support normal interactions and risk control between our two countries.

    In preparation for a potential return of Trump, our efforts should extend beyond bilateral relations to encompass a broader vision that acknowledges China’s growing influence worldwide. By engaging in various fields where China leads, we can adapt to changing circumstances and weather any challenges that arise. Trump’s actions will cause turmoil and turn U.S. alliance policies upside down, resulting in a slim chance of reinforcing or resuming diplomatic relations between China and other countries.

    Discussing Trump’s potential return here does not imply that we’re betting he’ll win in 2024 but rather simply acknowledging its realistic possibility. Being proactive and prepared is essential to address “the changes unseen in a century.” We cannot afford to wait until the last minute before taking action. A purely reactive approach will risk leaving China vulnerable to the full force of any challenges that may arise.