China could expect changes in its bilateral relations with the United States should Trump fail to get reelected in the 2020 presidential election.

This was the insight by Susan Thornton, the former acting assistant of state to United States President Donald Trump.

Things might look up for China should Trump administration be replaced

“If this sceptical attitude towards talking diplomacy continues in this administration, you might have to wait till another administration,” said Thornton, who just ended her 27-year career in Washington in July 2018.

She was speaking at a lecture in Shanghai on Wednesday, May 15.

Trump is expected to run for a second term in the White House against a Democrat that remains undecided.

And should Trump fail to get reelected — which analysts say is unlikely — things might look up for China.

This is because Trump’s style is so “unique”, that “any other president who comes into office would not have that style, and would have a more balanced and predictable set of policies towards China”, Thornton said.

She said in the past, better communication in the run-up to this sort of trade negotiations helped bring about more motivation in seeing the talks through.

But the situation is different now under a largely unpredictable president:

“You did not have a President Trump before. Usually when we go into a negotiation, we know our president wants us to get the deal done eventually.

But here we have a situation that we do not really know what the guy wants.”

China can weather the trade dispute better

In addition, Thornton said at the lecture that China can weather the ongoing trade dispute better than the Trump administration.

This is because Beijing can control its political discourse way better than Washington.

“China’s political design has an edge in negotiations” as it does not need to “display as much information to the public through the media”, Thornton said.

She explained that trade discussions have moved from “an economic and commercial realm to a more political realm”.

And once things moved to the political realm, it was easier for China to control its political environment than (it was for) Trump to do so, she said.

This means that pressure will start to build on Trump before it builds on Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“And that gives the Chinese time,” she said.

No resolution in sight

Thornton told the South China Morning Post that a resolution to the trade dispute is nowhere in sight for both sides at the moment.

The latest round of talks in Washington, led by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, ended Friday, May 10 in a deadlock.

Negotiations between both sides had begun in January 2019.

Nevertheless, she hoped both countries could settle on a trade deal by the end of June.

“I tell all our foreign counterparts they should keep steady, keep their heads down and wait, try not to let anything change dramatically,” she said.

China might not want to continue talks: Chinese state media

Chinese state media signalled on May 11 that China may not be interested in continuing trade talks with the U.S. at the moment, as it does not see enough “sincerity” in Trump’s recent approach, according to a report by Bloomberg.

A commentary on Taoran Notes — a blog under state-run Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily — said it is meaningless for American officials to come to China for talks without the U.S. showing that it is sincere.

The change in tone comes after months of downplaying the trade dispute with the U.S., which makes it all the more prominent.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on May 15 he expected to go to Beijing at “some point in the near future” for talks, but later said he has “no plans yet to go to China”, Bloomberg reported.

China’s Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Gao Feng also said on May 16 that he was not aware of any American officials coming to Beijing for more talks.

But while talks have paused for the time being, the break can potentially help focus attention on the next meeting between Trump and Xi in June at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan.

Top image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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