Would Biden get ‘tough’ on China?

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As a senator and vice president, Joe Biden — like politicians from both parties and presidents dating to Ronald Reagan — embraced the idea that the United States could coax China into acting as a “responsible stakeholder.”

Would Biden get ‘tough’ on China?

As the Democratic presidential nominee, Biden now calls Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug.”

Until recently, the consensus in Washington held that more trade and dialogue with Beijing would help defuse tensions and eventually bring China into the liberal world order shaped by America.

The view from both sides of the aisle has dramatically shifted, and Biden’s evolution reflects that change.

In his bid for the White House, Biden has vowed to stand up to Beijing and accused his opponent, President Donald Trump, of getting “played” by the regime. Trump has painted Biden as “soft” on China and said that as vice president, Biden was part of an administration that failed to hold Beijing accountable.

If he wins in November, how would Biden handle China? Would he press ahead with tariffs and other punitive measures pursued by Trump? Would he make concessions on trade or human rights in return for a deal on climate?

Image: Xi Jinping and Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013.Lintao Zhang / AFP – Getty Images file

Biden and his campaign have spoken in broad strokes without offering details about exactly how far he would be willing to go to confront China on trade, human rights, cyber-espionage or its growing presence in the South China Sea. Seeking to draw a contrast with Trump, who has often shied away from criticizing China over human rights, Biden has promised to hold China accountable over its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and its crackdown in Hong Kong.

Biden also says that he would shore up U.S. alliances, which he says Trump has badly damaged, to present a united front against Beijing and that he would invest in high-tech research and education to make the U.S. economy more competitive.

Former officials and analysts say that at minimum, Biden would strike a more measured and consistent tone than Trump, who has heaped praise on Xi and at other times unleashed belligerent tweets against China.

Given his familiarity with Chinese leaders, Biden would likely work to “redefine the personal temperature with Xi,” commentator Steven Clemons said.

But on matters of substance, Biden and Trump might not be so far apart, partly because of China’s increasingly antagonistic trajectory, former officials and China experts said. Tariffs imposed by Trump, which Biden has criticized as hurting American farmers and manufacturers, could give Biden leverage in any dealings with Beijing, former officials said.

Xi’s aggressive track record has shifted how American voters and lawmakers view China, and that could limit Biden’s choices when it comes to setting China policy, former officials and experts said. Amid talk of a new “cold war,” both Democrats and Republicans say China is stealing Western trade secrets, blocking access to its markets, bullying its neighbors and waging a global disinformation campaign.

“The Hill has changed its mind on China. That constrains what any administration can do, because you don’t want to be accused of being soft on China,’ said James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, who served in several administrations.

National security officials have also raised alarms about Chinese espionage and cybertheft in recent years using public language that can’t be taken back, and that could constrain any move by Biden to soften the approach.

FBI Director Christopher Wray — who, if past practice is a guide, would continue serving his 10-year term in a Biden administration — last month called Chinese spying and hacking “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality.”

“It’s a threat to our economic security — and by extension, to our national security,” he said.

Biden would have to contend with progressive voices inside the Democratic Party that support tariffs or other protectionist measures against China. A Biden administration likely would come under pressure from organized labor if it tried to revive a version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was supposed to create a trading bloc that would exclude China. Trump dumped the deal in one of his first actions as president.

If Biden wins the White House, rebuilding Asian alliances would be only a first step, experts said. He would face an array of difficult decisions about China from day one, from Taiwan’s defense to technology export rules to China’s cyber-espionage.

China would likely test the mettle of the next president soon after his inauguration, perhaps over Taiwan or over trade, and Biden would have to decide where to draw the line with Beijing and how much risk to accept, former officials said. Trump opted to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, infuriating Beijing. Biden likely would have to weigh whether to sell more advanced air defense systems to Taipei.

“One of the core challenges that a Biden administration will face early on is deciding their tolerance for risk and friction. That will tell the Chinese something about Biden’s resolve,” said a former senior official who worked on China policy in the Obama administration. “It will send signals to allies, as well.”

The Trump campaign has pointed to Biden’s past comments, among them that it was in America’s interest to see China prosper, and he has painted him as naive, using video of Biden clinking glasses with Xi.

“President Trump is the first president with a backbone to stand up to China and hold them accountable for their nefarious actions while Joe Biden has spent his entire career appeasing Beijing and expanding American reliance on the communist nation,” said Ken Farnaso, the Trump campaign’s deputy national press secretary.

IMAGE: Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.Nicolas Asfouri / AFP via Getty Images file

“In sharp contrast, President Trump has confronted China’s aggression on the world stage, cut off travel from the nation early in the pandemic, delivered on the Phase One China trade deal, and has tightened the leash on Beijing’s unfair corporate espionage,” Farnaso said.

Biden’s campaign and many independent foreign policy analysts have in turn argued that Trump’s tariffs have boomeranged on American farmers, that the “Phase One” trade deal with China achieved little and that Trump failed initially to stand up to Xi over the coronavirus, the crackdown on Hong Kong and the repression of the country’s Uighur Muslim community.

Derek Scissors, a senior research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank who describes himself as a China hawk, said the Phase One trade deal is a non-starter, as China so far has fallen far short of its commitments to purchase U.S. goods and services and as crucial structural issues — including intellectual property theft and access to China’s market — remain unresolved.

“The problem with the Trump administration position is their China toughness is mostly sound and fury signifying nothing,” Scissors said.

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