US-China tensions likely to continue despite election outcome, with Macau on the sidelines – Analysts

No matter who between President Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden wins the US elections on November 3, the confrontational attitude between the US and China will likely continue. The best Macau can hope for is to remain unnoticed in the dispute, political analysts consulted by Macau News Agency (MNA) indicate.

With polls showing Joseph R. Biden Jr. holding a clear advantage over President Trump across four of the most important presidential swing states, analysts are leaning towards a possible victory of the former Vice-President, but considering the surprising results reported four years ago no sure bets are being placed.

However, if there is one thing analysts agree on is that the Second Cold War – the tensions that rose in recent years between the US and China – is here to stay.

“No matter who wins the election, US-China relations will not be terribly good. I think Trump’s policy might be more erratic, he’s very unpredictable. With Biden it will be predictable, he would not throw the kind of curve balls Trump does. I doubt there would be much of a change in policy, since one of the few things that unite Republicans and Democrats is that they are hostile to China”, City University of Macau Associate Professor and Co-Director of Asia Pacific Business Research Center, Priscilla Roberts, told MNA.

In fact, some of the rare bi-partisan initiatives seen in the US in recent years have included a legislation introduced last month that would provide more than US$350 billion over a decade to boost the United States’ industrial capacity and challenge Beijing, and bills to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and banks for violations of Hong Kong’s autonomy following the enforcement of the new national security law in the SAR.

“I would say things are not looking bright at the moment […] Democrats tends to focus more on human rights issues and Republicans more on strategy, but I would say they are all very unhappy with China”, Professor Roberts stated.

“We have been talking of a new Cold War. I have been relieved quite frankly that they have managed to go through the election campaign without a major crisis being sparked in the South China Sea, possibly over Taiwan […] I think the best that can be hoped for is a fairly antagonistic situation, but one that doesn’t really translate into outright hostility.”

For the Assistant Professor at the University of Macau Faculty of Arts and Humanities Department of History, although tensions are likely to continue, in the short term dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic will move whatever happens in the United States to the background.

“Whether Trump stays or Biden gets in, I don’t see any fundamental breakdown in the US-China relations. Maybe there could be a downplay on some of the rhetoric that has been used by the Trump administration concerning trade relations with China, but I doubt the reality will change much”, Spooner told MNA.

The former global commercial banking expert considers that a Biden presidency would probably focus more on non-confrontational policies toward China modelled on those implemented during the Obama administration, but that does not mean relaxing any of the Trump trade policies or other sanctions concerning China.

However, for UM Department of Government and Public Administration Professor, Michael Share, the election’s results will mean deep changes for the US and its relations with China.

“Concerning China, you will have a more stable and predictable president. This one is totally erratic and can go back and forth depending on his mood. I think Biden is also much more committed to free trade than Trump, who is more into old-style economics of mercantilism, tariffs, and trade wars… The kind of thing we had in the 1930s and that led to the Great Depression”, the international relations expert added.

Therefore, Share believes a Biden election would lead to an almost immediate easing of trade restrictions and a return to a multilateral agreement approach by his administration.

US President Donald J. Trump (C-R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (C-L) review soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 09 November 2017. Source: Lusa

Since China wants stability from an American leader, Biden’s victory could be seen more favourably; however, a Democrat-led government could also mean a larger focus on human rights issues.

“Biden is in favour of free trade and open markets, and I think that will be good for China. However, Biden is also much more committed to human rights and will speak out much more regarding Xinjiang and Hong Kong”.

According to the political expert, the current White House resident has mainly used Hong Kong as a “prop to hit China” as part of his political strategy, but this did not mean he actually intended to do something about it.

However, Share also envisioned a case where if Trump is re-elected he could maybe stop using China as a way of riling up domestic support through confrontation and ease up on his rhetoric.

“Not meaning the tariffs would go away, he is very committed to tariffs. But maybe a lot of the negative rhetoric would go away”, Share added.

The US concession elephant in the room

Although the Macau SAR has so far remained largely out of the tit-for-tat policies centred around Hong Kong, the local three US gaming concessions and their future, as the 2022 re-tendering process approaches, remain one of the possible flashpoints if tensions were to continue.

Especially considering that Sheldon Adelson, the founder and CEO of the major player in the SAR’s gaming sector, Sands China, is a long-time Republican donor and backer, and remains the single largest individual donor to the Trump re-election campaigns, after a US$75 million contribution.

“Adelson is certainly closer to Trump and has given a great a deal of money from his Macau casino operations to the Trump campaign in recent weeks. I suppose that a Democratic Biden administration would be less concerned over his casino operations than a Republican one, but I can’t see in all honestly they would be very much different”, the researcher added.

Meanwhile, Professor Spooner again argued that the main issue in the city and its casinos will be to deal with the impact of Covid-19 in the next 12 to 18 months, as the re-negotiation of the gaming concessions are still two years down the road.

“All these main issues for the region and Macau will not be impacted by what happens in the United States”, Professor Spooner added.

One day or many days

The US elections will start on Tuesday night US time (Wednesday morning Macau time) with results, as usual, coming out at different times for each of the 50 states.

This year, a record number of US citizens has already cast their vote in the 2020 elections via absentee ballot, since, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people have decided not to vote in person on Election Day.

“The two states to look out for on Wednesday morning will be Florida and North Carolina because they will count very quickly. If Florida and North Carolina tip the scales in Biden’s favour, we will know that he will win and by a big margin, since both voted for Trump in 2016”, Share told MNA.

“If they go with Trump, then we might not know for a while. It could be a long Wednesday, or even Thursday or Friday”.

Under the US Electoral College system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress. Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election, and since there are a total of 538 electoral votes the candidate that gets more than half (270) wins the election.

“If it’s a landslide for Biden, as forecasts say that he could win by 350 electoral votes – the same that Obama got in 2008, we will likely know on Wednesday evening and there will likely not be any court challenges. If it’s close, as in 2016 or 2000, then you might see court challenges and we might not know for days,” Share told MNA.

The 2000 US Presidential election was famously decided in favour of George W. Bush by a margin of only 537 votes out of almost six million votes cast in Florida, and after a court challenge by Al Gore that delayed the final decision by a month.

Meanwhile, in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton received 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in the popular vote, but less electoral college votes.

As with other US citizens in Macau, Share already mailed his ballot to the state where he is a registered voter.

Given that postal ballots are usually counted later than on-the-day ballots, the outcome might not be clear for a few days, or longer, after the election.

MNA inquired the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau over the number of ballots mailed by US citizens in the Macau SAR; however, according to the consulate, since each person is responsible for their own voter’s registration in their own specific state of residence there is no way of knowing how many Americans have received ballots or registered to vote.

“In any case it will be an existential election for the US democracy,” Share stated.