With Trump Gone, China Will Lose An Enemy — But A Useful Enemy

China may be relieved to see their bitter adversary withdraw from power. But President Donald Trump was also Exhibit A for the Chinese regime to show the Western democratic system on the verge of collapse.

Trump's unpredictability was particularly disturbing for China
Trump's unpredictability was particularly disturbing for China
Dominique Moisi

PARIS — "China is relieved, but it still has concerns in the short term and is under no illusion for the medium or long term." In just these few words, my contact, an astute Chinese-American analyst of China based in the United States, has managed to sum up China's reaction to the US presidential election.

The country's leaders are genuinely relieved by Joe Biden's victory. It wasn't President Donald Trump's policies that worried them as much as his personality. Like the financial markets, the Chinese don't like uncertainty. Trump's unpredictability was particularly disturbing for them. And the Beijing rulers, "Leninist Mandarins," were never able to get used to the style of the 45th president of the United States. Such incessant familiarity, vulgarity and vague relation with the truth for the leader of what is still today the world's leading power, and the country that China is trying by all means to catch up with, and then to surpass in the next 15 to 20 years.

This natural, deeply felt relief is accompanied by some short-term anxiety. With less than two months before Biden's inauguration, will Trump attempt something to permanently damage the relationship between the United States and China?

Trump lays the blame for his defeat firmly on China. Without the "Chinese virus," wouldn't he currently be working on a smooth transition period between his two terms? His loyal entourage made up of Republican "hawks," some newly appointed by him, will try to leave behind negative faits accomplis that the new Biden administration can't reverse. Take, for instance, the recent White House's decision to ban Americans from investing in Chinese firms that are owned or controlled by China's military.

But beyond instant relief and simultaneous concerns, there's also the fact that China is under no illusions about the future of Sino-American relations. The Chinese know the U.S. far better than Americans know China. Beijing knows that Biden's room for maneuver in terms of his Chinese policy will dwindle, especially since 67% of Americans don't trust China.

There are certainly more than just nuances between Republicans and Democrats on the Chinese question. For the Republicans, China is simply the number one threat, ahead of all the others. For the Democrats, on the other hand, China is not even on the list of the first seven threats, which are all internal. But China knows the United States has never been so divided, that Biden won on the razor's edge and that the Senate is still likely to hold a Republican majority. Any attempt to bring Washington closer to Beijing will be criticized by the Republicans who want to regain power in 2024 as a "Munich Betrayal." And the risk is that a majority of Americans might perceive the move as such.

China isn't happy about the possible return "democratic soft power," but it isn't too worried about it either.

By becoming the United States' main foreign policy concern, has China achieved what it wanted and erased the humiliation that it has suffered for over a century? Or has it instead lost out by exposing, from Hong Kong to Taiwan, its ambitions into the glaring spotlight? Only time will tell.

In this writer's opinion, Donald Trump could be seen as a poisoned gift. Could "the useful idiot," despite his business pugnacity, be Xi Jinping's "secret card" in his progress to ever greater centralization of power? Isn't Trump the absolute proof that democracy leads to chaos and that, in order to confront a pandemic, nothing beats an authoritarian regime and an ultra-centralized management that reminds citizens of the essential collective of civic duty?

At the start of the pandemic, some commentators remarked that COVID-19 would be for China the equivalent of Chernobyl for Russia — a "social tsunami" which led to the collapse of their Empire six years later. But the opposite has happened and China is able to face at least the immediate future with confidence. What if Donald Trump and COVID-19 were simply two viruses, one political and the other medical, whose simultaneity had resulted in deepening and expanding China's advantages — or at least those of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, which isn't necessarily the same as all of China.

Donald Trump Xi Jinping shaking hands at a press conference in 2017 — Photo: Ivanov Artyom/TASS/ZUMA

Beyond these considerations, the advantages and disadvantages for China of Joe Biden's victory are being pragmatically measured in Beijing. In terms of gains, Americans and Chinese will no longer appear as rivals but as partners. A Chinese expert recently told the New York Times that Biden sees China as a competitor, whereas Trump only saw China as an opponent — and that relationships between competitors are based on rules.

On issues as diverse as the fight against COVID or against global warming, China and the U.S. will be able to engage in a more confident dialogue. Confrontation on commercial and technological levels will continue, but in a more "civilized" tone. On a strategic level, the ball is in China's court. But for the country, there's no reason why it should limit its ambitions or change its behavior just because a potentially more conciliatory and moderate administration has come to power in Washington.

Beijing isn't willing to slow down its push in Hong Kong, as we have seen recently, or to take precautions in the way it treats Uyghurs in Xinjiang just because a president who's more concerned with human rights is moving into the White House. China isn't happy about the possible return of the United States' "democratic soft power," but it isn't too worried about it either. Trump or Biden, America will continue to be crippled by its divisions.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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