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Stop Saying Biden Is “A Lot like Trump” on China

(REUTERS/How Hwee Young/Pool)

All the headlines about how we will see a continuation of President Trump’s China policies under a potential Biden administration ignore their radically divergent views about the United States’ role in the world.”

During the Republican Party primary in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump declared that “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” At a rally two weeks ago, President Trump told the crowd, “This election is a simple choice: if Biden wins, China wins.” But it is hard to see what Americans have “won” after four years of economic warfare and rapidly deteriorating relations with Beijing.

From the beginning, President Trump announced that his administration would fundamentally alter the U.S.-China relationship to address issues such as Chinese currency manipulation, export subsidies, encroachments on intellectual property rights, and the United States’ trade deficit with the second largest economy in the world. When he was unable to secure any meaningful progress on these goals in his first year, he imposed tariffs on more than half a trillion dollars in Chinese goods, which prompted Beijing to respond with $185 billion in tariffs of its own.

A January, 2020 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that the brunt of “U.S. tariffs continue to be almost entirely borne by U.S. firms and consumers.” The NBER report was consistent with numerous other studies; for example, Moody’s Analytics found that the trade war led to a 0.3% contraction of real GDP and a loss of almost 300,000 jobs. The negative effects of the trade war on the United States’ economy are clear: lower profits for American companies, higher prices for consumers, and especially devastating effects for certain parts of the economy, such as the agriculture sector. 

With President Trump’s recent announcement that his administration will provide $13 billion in new aid to farmers, federal assistance to the agriculture industry is on track to hit $46 billion this year. Meanwhile, U.S. farm cash receipts are projected to hit their lowest point in over a decade, while the sector’s debt load has soared to $434 billion. While American farmers have taken a hit as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), they were already suffering under the weight of President Trump’s trade war, which is why tens of billions of dollars had to be pumped into the industry long before the pandemic hit. Although President Trump’s approval rating remains high among rural voters, there is little doubt within the agriculture sector about the damage caused by his trade war. As the chief economist of the U.S. Farm Bureau recently explained, “U.S. farm income will be critically dependent on maintaining international market access and remaining competitive around the world.”

Just days after taking office, President Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP), describing it in the same terms as the U.S.-China relationship: as a “rape of our country.” However, this was a strange attitude for a president who claims to be so concerned about China’s economic rise; the TPP was the United States’ heaviest economic counterweight to Beijing’s economic influence, and President Trump abandoned it with nothing to offer in its place. President Trump promised to replace the TPP with a series of bilateral trade agreements, but it was not long before he was considering rejoining the agreement, which took years to negotiate and was intended to put pressure on China to make many of the economic changes his administration has been demanding. However, because the other signatories (which represent more than 13% of the world’s economy) went ahead with negotiations and came to an agreement in 2018, the concessions President Trump demanded made re-entry extremely unlikely.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party is following President Trump’s lead and taking a more aggressive line on China.

As COVID-19 was already ripping through Wuhan in January of 2020, the Trump administration finalized its “phase one” trade deal with China. While President Trump touted the deal as the long-awaited payoff from his trade war, one of its core features was Beijing’s promise to purchase $200 billion in American products, and, as of August of this year, China is nowhere close to being on track to meet this target. President Trump also promised to reduce drastically the United States’ trade deficit with China; instead, the deficit has increased.

Despite the fact that President Trump’s approach to China has been a parade of failures since the beginning of his term, he has made hostility to Beijing a centerpiece of his campaign. He repeatedly refers to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” “China plague,” etc. The Trump-aligned super PAC America First Action, Inc. declares that the President is running against “Beijing Biden,” who allegedly “ignores the China threat, putting American jobs and American national security at risk.” America First Action attacks former Vice President Joe Biden for his “ruinous quest to strengthen China” and for being a “key supporter and enabler of Communist China.” In advertisement after advertisement, America First Action accuses Vice President Biden of “putting China first,” voting for “weak, job-killing trade deals,” and “defending China” as Beijing is “killing our jobs and killing our people.” “Now more than ever,” the advertisements declare, “America must stop China. And to stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”

It is telling that the line America First Action emphasizes more than any other is from a May, 2011 speech at the opening session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, in which Vice President Biden observed that a “rising China is a … positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.” Vice President Biden outlined the ways in which cooperation with China is healthy for both countries: He pointed out that the United States “exported $110 billion in American goods and services to China last year.” He emphasized joint efforts to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and specifically to curb proliferation of those weapons and technology from both Iran and North Korea,” as well as “preventing sensitive technologies from being exported to both those countries.” He discussed climate change, cooperation on “regional issues such as Sudan and Afghanistan,” and a range of other concerns.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party is following President Trump’s lead and taking a more aggressive line on China. Kurt Campbell was the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration, and he recently observed that “there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices.” Campbell is now advising the Biden campaign, and he added that President Trump’s China policy has been a “mess.”

Campbell is correct that Democrats are far more hawkish on China than they were just a few years ago. This is partially because political pressure to be tough on China has intensified (66% of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of China, up from 47% just a few months ago). But it is also because many in Washington have been chastened by the realization that their hopes for a more liberal China have been trampled by Xi Jinping’s ruthless authoritarianism and Chinese recalcitrance on everything from unfair trade practices to intellectual property rights.

Does this justify headlines that claim a President Biden’s China policy would be “a lot like Trump’s”? Many recent articles have declared that Vice President Biden’s approach to China will mirror President Trump’s in key ways—from the use of existing tariffs as leverage to a more confrontational position on trade abuses, intellectual property, cyber espionage, and a range of other issues. The Biden campaign has also announced that he wants to “bring back critical supply chains to America so we aren’t dependent on China or any other country for the production of critical goods in a crisis.” However, the idea that Vice President Biden’s approach will be “a lot like Trump’s” ignores the fundamental (and much more significant) differences between their worldviews.

If a President Biden were to maintain some of President Trump’s tariffs to secure concessions on other issues, it will not be evidence of anything other than an attempt to salvage what has otherwise been a disastrous set of economic policies toward China. Although Vice President Biden is under significant political pressure (particularly from labor unions and voters in industrial states) to be more combative toward China, he would not have started a pointless trade war in the first place because he does not share President Trump’s zero-sum attitude toward the United States’ relationship with Beijing. Nor does he extend that attitude to American allies and partners, which is why he would not have pulled the United States out of the TPP (now CPTPP). Vice President Biden’s support for the CPTPP is muted now because it has become a political liability, but the worldview that led the Obama administration to negotiate the largest trade agreement on the planet could not be more starkly different than the worldview that led President Trump to tear up that agreement.

While Vice President Biden claims that he plans to negotiate a better version of the CPTPP, this is a political maneuver to fend off charges that he would settle for what President Trump relentlessly describes as a bad deal. Vice President Biden was a firm supporter of the CPTPP, and he played a key role in promoting it to the United States’ partners; however—like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who declared her opposition to the agreement in the 2016 election despite being one of its early negotiators—he has decided that it poses significant political risks. Once in office, he will want to use all the tools at his disposal to counter China, and reentering the CPTPP will be at the top of the list. A President Biden likely would not demand the same stringent concessions as President Trump, making it easier for other signatories, which have already declared their support for an American re-entry, to include the United States.

Another area where a President Biden would clearly distinguish himself from President Trump is when it comes to human rights in China. According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, upon hearing Xi Jinping’s explanation for the systematic dislocation and detention of more than a million Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, President Trump said “Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” President Trump also has a long record of downplaying and dismissing human rights concerns over Hong Kong and the Uighurs with comments about the overriding importance of securing a trade deal with Beijing—a pursuit that has proven to be economically destructive and diplomatically counterproductive.

All the headlines about how we will see a continuation of President Trump’s China policies under a potential Biden administration ignore their radically divergent views about the United States’ role in the world. As the United States attempts to manage its relationship with an ascendant China in the coming years, it will need the full weight of the system of international economic and political institutions it has developed over the past three-quarters of a century. Future administrations will need to rediscover the value of international trade, the United States’ European and Asian allies, and our commitment to human rights.

To President Trump and his backers, these principles and institutions are relics of a bygone era of globalization that harmed American workers and allowed other countries to take advantage of the United States. But the Trump era has been a corrective to this view: Bluster and pointless economic conflict did not bring back manufacturing jobs, reduce the trade deficit, promote human rights, or build a healthier relationship with Beijing. All it did was destroy jobs, hurt American consumers, shrink the economy, alienate allies, and push the United States toward an even more toxic relationship with the only other superpower on the planet. Vice President Biden could hardly do worse.

Matt Johnson is a freelance writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including Haaretz, New York Daily News, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, and Quillette.

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