U.S.-China relations are bad and getting worse, with major ramifications for trade and investment — and the U.S.’s presidential election

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American’s views of China have never been so abysmal as they are today, according to recent polls, and that may spell trouble for hopes of repairing the countries’ frayed trade relationship.

The souring of U.S. public opinion predates the coronavirus epidemic, which began in China late last year and is causing economic pain, alongside public health crises, across the world. American views of China started to become gradually unfavorable two years ago when Washington and Beijing began tit-for-tat tariffs that spiraled into a trillion-dollar trade war.

But the negative sentiment has accelerated during the coronavirus crisis, and has been kindled by rhetoric from President Donald Trump and other U.S. politicians, setting the stage for China to become a more central issue this November than in any U.S. election in recent memory.

Trump is facing an approval-ratings downturn and economic crisis just months before the election, and his comments suggest the likeliest culprit he will choose to blame for U.S. financial woes might not be congressional Democrats or Obama-era policies. It may well be China, with an emphasis both on the economic damage caused by the outbreak as well as the disagreements that predate it.

“The trade deal we have, they have to give us $250 billion in purchases,” the president said at a recent press conference. “Let’s see if they do that. Now, if they don’t produce, or if we find out bad things [about China’s coronavirus response], we’re not going to be happy.”

Campaign ads from Trump and likely opponent Joe Biden, for eight years President Barack Obama’s vice president, have already begun a China-focused back-and-forth.

Trump rolled over for the Chinese,” says a recent Biden ad. “Trump praised the Chinese 15 times in January and February as the coronavirus spread across the world.”

Biden is polling significantly higher than Trump is in numerous potentially pivotal areas. Last week, Biden bested Trump by 6 percentage points when poll respondents were asked whom they “trusted more in a position of leadership during a crisis.”

But it isn’t just the presidential candidates who have China in their sights. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent an extensive memo to campaign staff recently, called the “Corona Big Book,” which advised a strategy of targeting China as the enemy and Democrats as soft on the issue.

The widely circulated memo urged GOP candidates to say that:

• “China caused this pandemic by covering it up, lying, and hoarding the world’s supply of medical equipment.”

• “My opponent is soft on China, fails to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party, and can’t be trusted to take them on.”

• “I will stand up to China, bring our manufacturing jobs back home, and push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic.”

China is accustomed to being a scapegoat to varying degrees during elections, after which relations often normalize. But the key difference here is the trade war, the sanctions and the amount of investment at stake as economies seek to recover.

Though inflammation of the trade war was paused just before the coronavirus struck, most of the taxation on half a trillion dollars’ worth of goods among the two rivals is still in place.

The decimation of China’s economy in the first quarter may make it difficult for Beijing to meet all of Trump’s trade demands. But if it doesn’t meet those demands, Trump said last week, “we’ll do a termination [of the deal] and we’ll do what I can do better than anybody.”

Peripheral tensions are simmering, as well. The FCC on Friday demanded four Chinese state-owned telecommunications operators rebut accusations that they are subject to Chinese government control, saying otherwise it would ban them from operating in the U.S. The move echoes regulatory steps taken last year to eliminate Chinese links to U.S. telecommunications infrastructure, most notably Chinese firm Huawei, which last month threatened to retaliate if Trump continues to punish the company.

The China campaign issue could rise and subside before the election if the U.S. economy bounces back in the summer, as the Trump team has said it expects it will, even as impartial observers see a more prolonged downturn.

“I think there is going to be a longer adjustment process during the summer,” Dave Donabedian, chief investment officer of CIBC Private Wealth Management, told MarketWatch.

Expect a better window into this thorny issue as numerous American economic reports are released this week, while Trump’s handling of the crisis grows increasingly clear.

Tanner Brown is a writer for MarketWatch and Barron’s and producer of the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief podcast.

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