Biden, under Trump attack, casts himself as firm on China
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is articulating an agenda aimed at giving the United States a competitive edge over China and cracking down on Beijing’s abuses, going on offense against President Trump on an issue that the incumbent has made a focus of his reelection effort.
Biden hasn’t yet delivered a comprehensive address on foreign policy or China, but he has sprinkled his policy proposals throughout remarks on his domestic agenda and public statements on his plans for the economy, human rights and the environment.
Earlier this month, Biden proposed new policies aimed at cracking down on China’s competitive economic advantages and said he would take measures to confront Beijing’s human rights abuses with respect to Hong Kong and camps in the country’s Xinjiang region.
His efforts come at a time when Trump has sought to cast Biden as weak on China as he steps up his bid for reelection by emphasizing his administration’s confrontational approach to China on trade, intellectual property theft and other issues.
“The fundamental argument that the campaign is putting forward is, under Trump, China’s position is stronger while the United States’ has grown weaker,” said Ely Ratner, who served as deputy national security adviser to Biden during the Obama administration from 2015 to 2017.
“This notion of positioning the United States to out-compete China is at the core of the vice president’s agenda,” Ratner added.
Despite deep political divides in the United States, there exists broad support in Washington and around the country for holding China accountable for its behavior, including unfair trade practices and cyber theft.
The latest Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey found that 53 percent of voters view China as an enemy, and 70 percent say the country is responsible for creating new global tensions. More than 60 percent of voters say the U.S. should take steps to hold China accountable for its handling of the coronavirus and for exploiting U.S. trade policies.
Trump has sought to tap into that appetite for a tough policy on China by imposing tariffs on Beijing to force the country’s hand in trade negotiations. The Trump administration recently enacted punishment on China over spying allegations and human rights abuses, and the president has sought to blame China for the pain caused by the coronavirus outbreak as his own disapproval ratings rise.
Former Obama administration officials expect that Biden will continue to treat China as a strategic competitor, as Trump has.
“The similarity is a recognition that strategic competition is the right frame generally for the relationship,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor of Asian studies and former Obama national security council senior director for Asia.
But former Obama administration officials say they expect Biden will adopt a less overtly confrontational approach toward Beijing.
Medeiros speculated that a Biden administration would be open but not “overly solicitous” of cooperation with China and ensure that a dialogue is rebuilt but is not used by Beijing to play for time or advantage.
Biden has proposed new policies aimed at cracking down on China’s competitive economic advantages. The former vice president says he’ll take measures to strengthen the supply chain so the U.S. is not reliant on China for critical products, such as drugs and medical equipment.
Biden says he’s committed to ensuring government contracts go to American companies and will crack down on companies that label their products as having been made in America when they were actually manufactured elsewhere.
And Biden has proposed a $300 billion federal investment in research and development, warning that China is on track to surpass the U.S. in cutting-edge technologies. He says any companies that received federal funding for research will be required to produce their products in the U.S.
The former vice president is also vowing to take “aggressive trade enforcement” actions against China over currency manipulation or other unfair trade practices.
The Biden strategy toward China would hinge on strengthening U.S. alliances that he argues have been undermined by Trump and investing domestically in education, emerging technology and infrastructure in order to improve competitiveness, allies say.
“We need to rally our allies and partners instead of alienating them to deal with some of the challenges that China poses,” Anthony Blinken, the foreign policy chief for the Biden campaign, said in a speech in early July at the Hudson Institute.
The Trump campaign has invested heavily in ads focusing on China, hammering the former vice president as “Beijing Biden” for his work on past trade deals and drawing attention to Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the country. The president’s campaign sees these messages as particularly important to drive home in key states like Pennsylvania.
In a Rose Garden address earlier this month, Trump assailed Biden for his support of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, for his advocacy for the Paris climate agreement and for his opposition to the Trump administration’s tariffs, declaring Biden’s political career a “gift to the Chinese Communist Party.”
A New York Times-Siena College poll released in late June found voters in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania trust Trump over Biden to better handle China.
But the latest Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey found that, nationally, Biden is slightly more trusted than Trump on who would do a better job of handling relations with China. Fifty-four percent said Biden, compared to 46 percent for Trump.
“Politically, Biden does slightly worse than the horse race gap so China is neither helping him nor hurting him in any meaningful way,” said Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll polling director Mark Penn. “Because China is not a top issue it’s not affecting the horse race though the underlying antipathy towards China suggests some potential for it to grow in importance and be used as a potential wedge issue by the president.”
China is far down the list of issues that are top of mind for voters at the moment. The campaigns are focusing on the coronavirus, the economy and racial unrest.
But as the November election approaches, the Biden campaign plans to parry attacks from Trump by making the case that the president’s trade negotiations with China have hurt American manufacturers and farmers, who have had to deal with retaliatory tariffs.
The campaign intends to argue that the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts incentivized big corporations to move jobs and production overseas.
The Biden campaign says Trump’s threats against China have been hollow and that he hasn’t followed through on holding China to account for its trade and human rights abuses.
And Biden will tie Trump’s coronavirus response to China, making the case that the president dithered in the early days and even praised Beijing’s response as the virus escaped Wuhan and infected the rest of the world. The Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee have put money behind five different advertisements alleging that Trump got “played” by China.
Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin pointed to media reports that Beijing views Trump’s leadership as destabilizing in the U.S. and wants him in for a second term.
“At every step of his presidency, Donald Trump has put China first and America last — selling out our workers and farmers for a hollow trade deal, blithely praising President Xi as COVID-19 spread unchecked, and condoning the Chinese government’s crackdown on basic rights in Hong Kong and their concentration camps in Xinjiang,” Gwin said.
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