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At first glance, China is not a factor in this year’s US presidential election, despite Donald Trump’s occasional efforts to make it one. Yet in the toxic brew of American politics, the economic relationship with China plays a role that seems set to grow and might increasingly poison the bilateral relationship.

US flag with Clinton and Trump pins

There were times when China loomed large in American presidential election contests: in 1992, Bill Clinton successfully attacked George H.W. Bush, the sitting president seeking re-election, for “coddling” a dictatorial regime that had brutally suppressed the democracy movement in June 1989. In 2000, George W. Bush called China America’s “strategic adversary” and declared that he would change Clinton’s China policy if he were elected.

In this presidential campaign China does not seem to play much of a role. True: the Republican candidate Donald Trump repeatedly attacked China for its trade practices, accusing it of destroying American jobs and manipulating its currency in its own favor. His opponent Hillary Clinton accused the businessman Trump of using Chinese, not American steel in his US construction projects in the US.

China enters the debate through the back door

Yet overall, neither candidate has spent much time talking about China. The outcome of this presidential election will be determined by domestic issues. What is unusual this year is that not even the state of the economy seems to be an issue of major concern. This election reflects the deepening divisions within America’s society and polity. And the populist Trump campaign has given a voice to a large disenchanted minority of mostly poor and poorly educated white men who feel robbed of their economic opportunities and left behind by the political establishment in Washington – and by the forces of globalization. The latter is what brings us back to China.

Even if Trump looses to Hillary Clinton, which seems increasingly likely on the eve of the third presidential debate, a Clinton victory will not heal the wounds in American society. The anti-establishment revolt that Trump has started would survive his defeat, and that revolt has a lot to do with China. His raging supporters are the new face of movements started by the political left in the form of “Attac” or “Occupy Wallstreet”. In the case of Trump’s followers, the fears of globalization have become mixed up with xenophobic, racist and sexist attitudes.

Anti-Chinese resentment may rise along with China’s power

Stoking resentment against China and the Chinese among this group is easy, as the right-wing television channel Fox News recently did in an outrageous example of racist journalism. To many Trump supporters China represents what America represents to others worldwide: an aggressive outside power seeking to overrun their own economy and everything they hold dear. As China’s economy overtakes that of the United States in size and closes the technological gap separating it from America, its export industries will continue to hammer their American competitors – if not in the US, then in third markets.

Moreover, China will increasingly come to challenge America’s role as the world’s leading power, stoking American nationalism and exceptionalism. For now, anti-globalist xenophobia in America is still diffuse, directed at Islamist terrorists, Latin American immigrants as well as imports from China. Yet the ingredients for re-focusing the rage of Trump’s supporters away from Washington and towards “the enemy abroad” are in place – just as the Chinese leadership has discovered anti-Americanism as a tool to shore up political support at home.

As if the US-China relationship were not complicated enough already, it may well become saddled with the explosive emotional baggage of anti-globalist rage. That could pit the two countries and their peoples against each other, while the real divide looms between their elites and their societies.