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US President Joe Biden struggled at times in the highly anticipated presidential debate with rival Donald Trump. Photo: dpa

China faces no-win scenario regardless of who tops the US presidential debates: analysts

  • The two candidates differ only in how they will wage strategic competition against China, and Beijing must ‘prepare for both scenarios’, observers say
Despite a subdued performance by the incumbent, the debate between US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump did not tilt the race definitively towards the challenger, according to diplomacy experts in China who watched the event.
Regardless of which candidate wins in the November election, the result would be the same “harmful competition” with China seen as a strategic rival, despite their different tactics, they said.

“This debate is unlikely to be a game changer in the current campaign landscape, where Trump is leading in overall polls and swing state polls,” said Diao Daming, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. “It might put Biden at a disadvantage against Trump among some key states and voter groups.”

Things could change in the rematch over the next 130 days, and Biden’s shaky position in the polls might be a result of less consolidated support from Democratic voters, in stark contrast to the more unified support Trump enjoys from Republican voters, he added.

“Even if Biden’s performance fell short of expectations, the first debate was held early, by historical standards, which could give Biden time to mitigate or minimise the adverse impact of this debate on his election bid,” Diao said, noting that Biden’s team would certainly be under more pressure now.

Both Biden and Trump pushed to debate in June, three months earlier than presidential debates are usually held. The event also took place before the major party conventions, where the Democratic and Republican nominees will be formally announced.

Biden failed to assuage concerns over his age and physical capabilities, experts said.

US presidential debates were not as much contests over policy differences, as they were subjective match-ups for voter or viewer impressions, Diao said, adding that while neither candidate had an outstanding performance, Biden’s was arguably the weaker of the two.

Sun Chenghao, a fellow and head of the US-EU programme at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, said that if Biden’s performance was unsatisfactory, having the debate earlier in the election year could limit an unfavourable impact on the actual election results.

“This debate has had a significant short-term impact, generating some disarray within the Democratic Party. The biggest issue for the party is that they do not have a viable alternative to Biden who can unite the party and effectively challenge Trump,” Sun said.

It was important not to overstate the impact of this debate, Sun said, adding that there was still plenty of time before the election.

“We need to wait and see how things unfold.”

A patron watches US President Joe Biden debate Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump during a debate watch party. Photo: AP

A new survey released last week showed that Trump was leading polls in six of seven swing states – Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Michigan – while Biden split with Trump in Minnesota. Trump has maintained a slight edge in the swing states for months.

Lu Xiang, a research fellow in US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said Trump had a higher chance of re-entering the White House, as several states previously considered key battleground states “have now clearly leaned towards Trump”.

“Trump is basically going to win the election if the Democrats cannot beat Trump through judicial means,” Lu said. “The debate is unlikely to impact the final outcome. In these states, I believe Trump’s performance in the debate – good or bad – will not change their choice.”

But China will face a lose-lose situation no matter who wins the election, according to observers, who said either candidate would continue to wage a strategic competition against China.

“This election will not alter the domestic and international issues facing the United States, nor will it change the strategic direction the US has already demonstrated towards China,” said Renmin University’s Diao.

US President Joe Biden and former US president Donald Trump participate in the first 2024 presidential election debate. Photo: dpa
Sun, from Tsinghua University, agreed, adding that “neither major US party is offering any fresh look on how to deal with China: it’s all about strategic competition. Regardless of who wins, this general direction will remain unchanged.”

China was a “passive participant” in this competition with the US, and it did not actively seek to engage in such a strategic rivalry with Washington, he added.

“Within the broader framework of strategic competition with China, the two candidates differ only in their techniques or tactics of how to implement this strategy.

“For China, the outcome is the same: harmful competition will continue, and there is no clear preference or significant difference between Biden and Trump,” Sun said.

He stressed that Beijing now had experience dealing with both men, and would “prepare for both scenarios”.

Lu, from CASS, said uncertainty in US-China relations was likely to increase. “China will do what it can to establish some certainty amid the uncertainty, but Beijing cannot control how the structural changes could evolve,” he said.

“For China, each candidate has advantages and disadvantages. But the key issue is how it can better interact with the US in the coming period and work towards stabilising bilateral relations. This is something that will require effort from both sides,” Sun said.