Biden holds Trump’s line when it comes to China
President Biden has made sharp departures from Trump administration policies in many areas — but not when it comes to China.
Biden has kept former President Trump’s tariffs on China in place and is now working to enforce the “phase one” trade deal reached by the previous administration. His decision to follow through on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — of which Trump was the original architect — also allows his administration to focus U.S. resources abroad on countering China’s growing influence.
The degree of continuity between the two administrations reflects the bipartisan support in the country and among Washington policymakers for a tough approach to Beijing. One of the few bipartisan bills moving through Congress would invest billions in technology research and development to make the U.S. more competitive with China.
Data released earlier this year by Pew Research Center found that majorities of both Democrats and Republicans have “cold” views of China and that almost 9 in 10 U.S. adults consider the nation a competitor or an enemy.
“Broad majorities in both parties tend to say they have negative views toward China,” said Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew. “Being soft on China isn’t a popular position.”
There are partisan divides on specific issues, however. According to the Pew survey, a majority of Democrats say it’s more important to build a strong relationship with China on economic issues than to get tougher with China, while Republicans tend to say the opposite. Democrats also see tariffs on foreign goods as having a negative effect, while Republicans see them as positive.
There is more consensus between the parties on human rights, with majorities of Democrats and Republicans saying the U.S. should promote human rights in China even if it harms economic relations, according to the survey.
“While there’s certainly some area for bipartisan consensus to handle China, it’s not clear cut,” Silver said.
The Biden administration has defined the U.S. relationship with China as one of “strategic competition,” which involves making investments domestically to gain an edge while trying to avoid direct confrontation with Beijing. The White House frequently makes references to China when making the case for the president’s economic agenda: A five-page White House messaging document recently circulated to Senate Democrats mentioned China almost a dozen times.
Biden’s rhetoric and style are toned down from Trump, who escalated a trade war with China over half his term and engaged in an uneven mix of disparagement and praise toward China and its president, Xi Jinping.
A senior Biden administration official says that a “key difference” between the two administrations is Biden’s focus on working with allies and partners on a coordinated approach to China. Trump often made policy decisions on a whim and acted unilaterally, creating rifts between the U.S. and its allies.
“Our China policy is designed to position us well for long-term strategic competition with China,” the official said. “We know that when we work with allies and partners on a coordinated strategy, it is much more effective in achieving the results that we want.”
The official pointed to the first-ever Quad leaders summit that Biden convened at the White House, the Group of Seven (G-7) communique that rebuked China over human rights and its economic practices over the summer and the new AUKUS partnership among the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia on Indo-Pacific security.
The AUKUS arrangement is seen as a promising effort to counter China’s growing military might in the Asia-Pacific, but it angered the French, setting the U.S. back with its oldest ally.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai laid out Biden’s China trade strategy in a speech earlier this month, revealing that the administration would engage with China to enforce the Trump-era trade pact that is set to phase out at the end of the year and also raise concerns about their “state-centered and nonmarket trade practices.” The Biden administration is keeping remaining tariffs on China in place but says it will restart a tariff exclusion process to offer relief to businesses impacted by the tariffs.
“The overarching message is continuity,” said Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Democrats have clearly moved a pretty long way in Trump’s direction on China.”
Alden did describe two “points of distinction” between the Biden and Trump strategies, pointing to Tai raising the prospect of “recoupling” with China and her insistence that the U.S. is not seeking to “inflame trade tensions.”
“I’m a little bit disappointed,” said Harry Broadman, who served as assistant U.S. trade representative during the Clinton administration and later worked at the World Bank. “It’s more of the same from the previous administration with a focus on a bilateral relationship.”
Broadman, who argued that both Biden and Trump are catering to workers in sectors who are suffering due to China’s practices, said the U.S. would be best served taking “collective action” with allies to pressure Beijing to either change its practices or be forced to exit the World Trade Organization.
Trade is one aspect of a bilateral relationship that has grown increasingly complex over time. Biden has made clear in actions and rhetoric that the challenge posed by China is both a domestic and foreign policy priority.
“There’s no easy answer or solution on the table for the objective of a China strategy or a China relationship. That’s a challenge that every president has faced since Nixon,” said Drew Thompson, a former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“They’re going to fall back naturally on the liberal internationalist outlook that Biden has, which leads to alliance building, using international systems better.”
Following a Financial Times report over the weekend that China had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Monday that the U.S. is closely tracking its advanced weapons development.
“We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue, and we have been consistent in our approach with China,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki added, declining to comment on the report specifically. “We welcome stiff competition, but we do not want that competition to veer into conflict and that is certainly what we convey privately as well.”
The CIA recently reorganized to stand up a new China center, though former officials said the move is not necessarily representative of substantive change at the agency.
“The people who were working China before are still working China,” said former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “I think this is more in the realm of ‘messaging’ the importance of China as a threat and as an intelligence target.”
The White House has needed to balance calling out China for its human rights abuses and recent military aggression around Taiwan with trying to work with Beijing on pressing issues like climate change. The administration’s view is that the points of confrontation and disagreement are not mutually exclusive.
Biden is expected to hold his first bilateral meeting with Xi sometime before the end of the year, though officials have not announced a specific time for the virtual engagement. The senior administration official said that the agreement to have the meeting is part of an effort to “responsibly manage competition” with China so that it “doesn’t veer into conflict.”
“We’ve been clear that while we are prepared for intense competition, intense competition also requires intense diplomacy,” the official said.
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