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Biden’s plan to handle China

In contrast to Trump’s sometimes-hawkish approach, Biden says he would keep China in check by strengthening ties with U.S. allies

Biden’s plan to handle China

Joe Biden (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Donald Trump’s presidential reelection campaign ran a 30-second television ad meant to throw doubt on rival Joe Biden’s ability to handle China. In it, viewers see the Democratic candidate’s head photoshopped onto a mannequin manipulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Words on the screen call the former vice president “China’s puppet.”

Among the ad’s other claims: Biden as vice president wanted to normalize trade with China, his son Hunter received more than $1 billion from a Chinese state-owned bank, and Biden attacked Trump’s travel restrictions on China at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak as racist.

In response, the Democratic National Committee launched its own TV ad in several swing states. It played like a horror film trailer, with ominous music. “Trump said he’d get tough on China. He didn’t get tough—he got played,” the narrator said, claiming Trump had lost the trade war, bankrupted farmers, and hurt steelworkers and U.S. manufacturing. The implication? Biden would be better—and tougher—at dealing with China.

In a contentious campaign season, both Trump and Biden have tried to prove themselves the best leader to face an increasingly aggressive People’s Republic of China. China’s handling of the coronavirus, its repression of Xinjiang and Hong Kong residents, its aggression in the South China Sea, and its unfair trade practices have tanked relations between the world’s two largest economies. Americans’ views on China have increasingly soured: Seventy-three percent of U.S. adults say they have an unfavorable view of the country, up 26 percentage points from 2018, according to a July poll from Pew Research Center.

With a foreign policy team largely recruited from the previous Obama administration, a Biden administration would likely roll back Trump’s more hawkish measures. Under Obama, the United States did little to curb China’s economic and military rise as the Communist nation flouted international rules. China illegally built artificial islands in the South China Sea and stole U.S. intellectual property, while domestically Xi consolidated power and placed restrictions on civil society, free speech, and religious liberty.
Many of Biden’s suggestions for handling China mirror what the Trump administration is already doing. But Biden’s major push is to engage allies Trump has alienated and use them to leverage greater international pressure against the country. Yet a question remains: How much harder are traditional U.S. allies willing to push against the economic giant China has become?

SINCE PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON’S 1972 trip to Beijing that led to a normalization of relations with China, the United States has pursued a policy of engagement in hopes that closer economic ties and partnership would lead China to open up politically. Nearly half a century later, the opposite seems to have happened: Rather than China looking like the democratic West, it now promotes its increasingly authoritarian views overseas through influence campaigns.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the Trump administration’s most vocal critics of the Chinese Communist Party, declared the failure of the engagement approach during a speech in July at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. “We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done.”  

Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Fulbright University Vietnam, said that every U.S. president since the 1980s has talked about getting tough on China, but Trump is the first to take the China threat seriously. Under Trump, the United States placed billions of dollars of tariffs on Chinese goods because of the country’s trade practices, sanctioned Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses, investigated cases of Chinese espionage, closed a Chinese Consulate, challenged China’s claims in the South China Sea, and banned Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The Trump administration also floated the idea of a travel ban on the 91 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Seemingly, much of the hawkishness comes from Trump’s advisers rather than the president himself, whose track record on China is more muddled. In 2018 Trump ended a ban on Chinese telecom company ZTE after a conversation with Xi even though the company had violated sanctions by doing business with North Korea, Iran, and other countries. He’s repeatedly praised Xi and remained silent on the Chinese leader’s human rights abuses and totalitarian rule.

When Xi eliminated term limits for the presidency in 2018, Trump told supporters, “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” (He later said he was joking.) According to former national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir, in 2019, after Xi had begun building reeducation camps in the Xinjiang region to hold Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, Trump told him he should “go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” Trump also admitted he held off sanctioning Chinese officials in Xinjiang for years in order not to interfere with trade talks with Beijing.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping in 2017 (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

In February, Trump praised Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, saying he was “doing a very good job with a very tough situation” and thanking him for containing the virus. Only after the pandemic spread to the United States did Trump accuse China of covering up the virus and take strong steps against China.

Still, U.S. confrontations under Trump have provoked tit-for-tat responses: China has taken trade measures to hurt U.S. farmers, kicked reporters out of China, and closed the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. Meanwhile, Communist officials still hold Uighurs in camps and are stripping Hong Kong of its freedoms.

Balding noted the United States does not have the power to change China, and he cautioned against judging Trump policies only by that measure.

“I think fundamentally the United States for the first time said, ‘We are going to impose costs and punishment for Chinese behavior that does not meet the standard of open international actors in today’s world,’” he said.

IF BIDEN WINS THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION in November, the United States’ policy toward China would see a large shift. Biden would focus more on diplomacy and cooperation in areas of mutual interest. As recently as May 2019, Biden said China was “not competition for us,” since it had domestic problems to deal with.

Biden’s remarks about China became more pointed this year: During February’s Democratic presidential campaign debates, Biden called Xi a “thug” for having “a million Uighurs in … concentration camps.” He later called Beijing’s imposition of a repressive national security law on Hong Kong a “death blow to the freedoms and autonomy that set Hong Kong apart from the rest of China.” He said that, as president, he would ban U.S. companies from supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state and impose economic sanctions if Beijing “tries to silence U.S. citizens, companies, and institutions for exercising their First Amendment rights.” He also promised to “take stronger steps to prevent imports from forced labor” in Xinjiang.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Biden said that if elected, he would work to build up America’s standing in the world through investment in education, infrastructure, technology, and healthcare. He noted the most effective way to challenge China is to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abuse behaviors and human rights violations.” At the same time, he plans to cooperate with Beijing on issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the pandemic response.

“China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy,” Biden wrote.

Biden has also stressed the need for the United States to lead international organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Trump decided to withdraw from the health organization due to Chinese influence, especially after the WHO parroted China’s talking points during the early outbreak of the coronavirus. Biden tweeted he would rejoin the organization on his first day as president and “restore our leadership on the world stage.”

AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi

People pass the entrance of the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami, doesn’t find the Democratic candidate’s approach especially compelling. “What [Biden’s] proposing to do has already been done and it hasn’t gone anywhere,” she said.

President Trump has at times alienated traditional U.S. allies such as Canada, Germany, France, and other European countries over issues such as the Iran deal, NATO, and America-first policy. The United States plans to pull 12,000 troops out of Germany over claims the country is not spending enough on defense. Democrats criticize Trump for acting “unilaterally” rather than working with allies.

Yet since the coronavirus pandemic began, new international coalitions have formed, including the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which includes politicians from the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain, Japan, Germany, and elsewhere. The long-standing Five Eyes intelligence alliance (the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) has also pushed China on its repressive treatment of Hong Kong and urged an international investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. The recent border conflict between China and India, too, has strengthened an international partnership India shares with Japan, Australia, and the United States.

BALDING, THE FULBRIGHT PROFESSOR, pointed to several problems with Biden’s plan to rely on allies to pressure China.

For one thing, there are no allies waiting for the United States to reach out to them. “Many countries have interests that cause them not to directly confront China,” he said. Some would avoid publicly admitting to being part of a U.S. alliance in order not to upset China, but would quietly shift their policy to align with the United States. For instance, countries like France or Romania do not have a formal ban on Huawei, but their telecommunication regulations effectively block the company.

Another concern is that even if Biden were able to gather allies, it is uncertain what new, tangible policies these countries could implement against China. Each country faces its own domestic issues and has its own foreign relations ideology, Balding noted. Germany, for example, the largest economy in Europe, has avoided criticizing China: Its leaders say it is not their place to lecture other countries on how to act. Rather German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes closer trade ties with China would push the Communist country toward a freer political system.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao, right, during a visit to the Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

German companies have large investments in China: Volkswagen invested $2.4 billion in two Chinese electric vehicle companies. The carmaker also opened a factory in Xinjiang, the area of the Uighur reeducation camps. When asked, Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess claimed he was unaware of repression in the region. German manufacturing company Siemens and chemical producer BASF also have factories in Xinjiang.

The European Union has done little more than publish strongly worded statements against China’s human rights abuses. With China as its second-largest trading partner, the EU has not enacted sanctions against the country. In a March 2019 EU Commission document, it called China both a “cooperation partner” and a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

Balding’s conclusion: “It’s dubious what you could expect from allies.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.