21 July 2019
The Democrats' return to power in the House might even further complicate the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China. Photo: AFP
The Democrats' return to power in the House might even further complicate the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China. Photo: AFP

Why the Democrats’ return may work against Beijing

For many, the results of the midterm elections came as no surprise, with the Democrats once again regaining control of the House of Representatives after eight years in the minority and the Senate still remaining in the hands of the Republicans.

This year’s elections, which saw a remarkably high voter turnout (50 percent), have been widely regarded as a de facto referendum on President Donald Trump’s presidency.

And if anything, the results showed that the Republicans have had an average performance.

That’s not unusual. According to the history of American politics since the end of the Civil War in 1865, the chances for the party to which the sitting president belongs to take control of the House in the midterms have always been extremely remote.

But even if the Democrats have taken back control of the House, there really is nothing much for them to celebrate: all they did was repeat the old election pattern.

Now that Congress is once again divided between the Democrats and the GOP, one can expect partisan gridlock to rear its ugly head once more in the days ahead.

And it is inevitable that Trump will find himself increasingly hamstrung when pressing ahead with controversial policy initiatives on health insurance, tax reforms, gun control, etc.

Another headache for the White House is that the Democrats might take advantage of their majority in the House to impeach Trump over “Russia-gate”.

And although the Democrat-controlled House alone cannot unseat Trump, the high drama during the course of the impeachment process would, in the worst scenario, take a heavy toll on Trump’s re-election prospects.

As far as Beijing is concerned, it may be that the Communist Party leadership was eagerly looking forward to a landslide victory of the Democrats, in the hope that it might render Trump a “lame-duck” president and force him to ease off on his trade war with China.

However, the fact that the GOP has lost control of the House doesn’t necessarily mean the Democrats would reverse the tariffs imposed on Chinese imports.

Worse still, as Trump’s policy initiatives such as health insurance and tax reforms are likely to get stuck in Congress due to partisan politics, he might go for easier ones instead, such as escalating his trade war against Beijing.

After all, containing China is one of the handful of issues that have secured bipartisan consensus in Washington.

The Democrats’ return to power in the House, in fact, might further complicate the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China.

For example, apart from the existing bones of contention, Washington might impose additional conditions such as urging Beijing to improve its human rights record during the course of the trade talks.

There is a risk that a divided US Congress may further fuel the ongoing Sino-US trade dispute, instead of cooling it down.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 8

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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