As the rapid process of imposing tariffs between the United States and China begins, there is only one thing that’s actually in play: the 2020 elections. If China makes a deal soon, that means they’re banking on President Trump winning reelection. If they don’t make a deal, they’re betting heavily on the Democrats claiming the White House. If the latter is the case, we can expect China to covertly “participate” in the election in ways that will make Russian hacking in 2016 seem like child’s play.
Tariffs will harm the United States economy by raising prices for businesses and therefore consumers. But the potential devastation of long-term, high-level tariffs for the Chinese economy is much higher. President Trump hopes the Chinese will recognize this and take him seriously when he says the deal they could make now is much better than any deal they could make if he wins reelection. Whether or not they recognize it is a tossup as the nation has been inept at playing their cards right for over a decade. They have the resources, the manpower, and the buying power to easily be the world’s most dominant economy, but poor fiscal decisions and a political ineptitude has held them back. As for the President’s promise to make a better deal now than later, this is most likely a real threat. The only wildcard is whether or not the tariffs extend to the point that they actually start doing real harm to the economy, in which case his 2nd-term legacy will be too important to him to blow.
If China opts to play hardball, they will do so knowing the Democrats MUST win the White House. This makes them extremely dangerous. If they believe they can hold their economy together through the election, then their inclination will be to meddle. This is how they’ve always operated, though not as visibly on the geopolitical level. They manipulate and make things happen that suit their needs, so if they feel the need to make Trump lose, they won’t do it subtly.
This could be a real challenge for the President if there are any vulnerabilities they can exploit. Russia may have held their cards, playing the long game and letting out just enough to make them feel like they were making an impact, but China will not be so cautious. If they decide to manipulate the election, they will do so with all of their political weapons blazing. We can expect hacks of important people in Trump’s orbit. We are certain to see social media attacks that are focused on defeating Trump. Russia’s social media play was to plant the seeds of polarization, as the long game demands. China will go after Trump with everything they have, directly and unabashedly.
But we’re better at recognizing and thwarting it as a nation than we were in 2016. There’s no telling what countermeasures are in play until the attacks come, but it isn’t out of the question that Chinese influence could actually be flipped and used as a rallying cry for the Trump campaign.
At this point, all we can do is speculate based on the information available.
China is in a poor situation and it can only get poorer the longer they allow their economy to be wrecked by U.S. tariffs. Will this translate into a deal or a geopolitical war to influence the 2020 elections? We’ll know soon enough.