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Donald Trump is vulnerable on China. So is Joe Biden.

The growing Trump-Biden war over China, explained.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2013, in Beijing, China.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

China is poised to be the key foreign policy issue during the 2020 election, and the fight over which party — and which candidate — can best handle the country is in full swing.

To President Donald Trump, it’s a matter of who’s “tougher.” On that metric, he, of course, believes he has the upper hand. He launched a trade war against China, has sharply criticized Beijing for reacting slowly to the coronavirus, and can say he prioritized US-China relations far more than his predecessors.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, argues Trump has been nothing more than “tough talk, weak action” on China, according to one of his top advisers. Namely, he’ll point to how the trade war hasn’t yet bolstered the American economy as Trump promised and how Trump has cozied up to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However, Biden isn’t really saying how he’ll be much better than Trump, just that he would be. One thing is clear, though: Biden would aim to rally American allies to push back on Beijing, whereas Trump has preferred the US handle the problem alone.

Outside of domestic issues like the economy and the coronavirus, then, maintaining America’s position ahead of China in the global world order is poised to become a major fault line. In fact, it already has.

Last week, the Democratic National Committee launched a 30-second ad in swing states — mainly Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — blasting Trump’s trade war. “Trump said he’d get tough on China. He didn’t get tough — he got played,” the ominous voiceover says. “Donald Trump lost” the trade war he started, it continued.

It’s all part of a plan to further hit Trump on the trade war, including holding press calls with impacted farmers and famous heartland Democrats, like former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“Trump’s failed trade war wreaked havoc on industries across the country. Farm bankruptcies are at highs not seen since the Great Depression, consumers paid higher prices, and manufacturing went into a recession,” Adrienne Watson, the DNC’s “War Room” director, told me. “America can’t afford four more years of Trump losing to China.”

That case received a boost last week when former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book revealed that Trump pleaded with Xi to buy American soybeans to help his reelection efforts. Bolton also wrote Trump believed Xi’s internment of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.”

“Donald Trump has sold every single one of us out to the Chinese government, and cemented himself as the most devastatingly weak, two-faced president in American history when it comes to China,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for Biden’s campaign, noting some Chinese officials openly want Trump to win.

Republicans have also been unsparing in their characterization of Biden on China. On Wednesday night, Trump tweeted that “Biden failed with China” because the country “took us to the cleaners!” during the Obama administration. In the same missive, he falsely claimed his imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods added billions of dollars to the American economy.

It’s a familiar line of attack for Trump; his campaign last month released an ad claiming Biden is nothing more than “China’s puppet.”

In the 30-second spot, the campaign says Hunter Biden, the candidate’s son, somehow got $1 billion from the country (an exaggerated allegation at best) and that the elder Biden wanted to normalize trade relations with Beijing as vice president. The goal, clearly, is to portray the politician as more willing to side with China than with the struggling American worker.

The Trump campaign believes these and other arguments could bring the president success in November. “Candidate Biden has been in office for 47 years and has done nothing but push a policy of appeasement on Beijing,” said Ken Farnaso, the deputy press secretary for Trump’s campaign, whereas “Trump has confronted China’s misconduct on the world stage.”

Neither candidate is particularly interested in appearing cooperative with America’s major trading partner. After all, public opinion shows US attitudes toward China have dropped sharply, as politicians and foreign policy experts have adopted a more antagonistic approach to Beijing.

That has as much to do with the policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping over the last few years as it does with the US’s realization that China will not stay at a lower level on the global economic ladder for much longer. On Xi’s part, he’s put Uighur Muslims into concentration camps, had his military steal millions of Americans’ data, and built up an array of new and dangerous weapons.

Even if Biden wanted to be friendlier toward China, then, Trump’s own record and Xi’s policies make that politically inconvenient, as pretty much every leader in Washington and most of America has some major critique of Beijing now.

Such ads and tweets are part and parcel of politicking, especially during an election year. A real debate would focus more on the intricacies and complexities of managing the world’s most important bilateral relationship, though there’s little to no chance the voting public will get such a robust discussion.

But candidates do make ads — high-minded or not — when they feel their opponent is vulnerable on a particular issue. In this case, they’re both right.

Why Trump is vulnerable on China

Trump’s theory of the case as a 2016 candidate, and now as president, was that he finally would bring China’s rise at the expense of American manufacturers to an end. Jobs that US companies sent overseas in search of cheaper labor would come back. Chinese industry would cease stealing the intellectual property of American companies. And Beijing would let US firms fairly compete in its lucrative marketplace.

All of this and more was supposed to lift the US economy, primarily aluminum and steel industries in the Midwest, and reverse years of weak-kneed leadership from the White House.

There’s no question Trump launched into the trade war head first, imposing tariffs on hundreds of billions of Chinese products — leading Beijing to reciprocate in kind. The problem for the president is it’s unclear his major China initiative succeeded.

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

“The Democrats are right: There’s been virtually no company in the United States helped by this trade war,” Edward Alden, a global trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. The cost for American manufacturers has gone up, and China’s retaliation to the tariffs have further hurt farmers, he said. “It’s hard to point to many winners.”

The statistics look dire for the president. The trade war cut about $2 trillion in the value of American firms listed in stock markets and is expected to reduce household income by around $600 this year on average. Farmers hoping Trump would fix their woes instead saw record-high debts rise alongside an increased rate of bankruptcies.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Trump supporters will turn against the president. Some polls show farmers in Iowa and elsewhere like the president’s hardline stance, while others say it’s ruined their livelihoods.

“Donald Trump is the worst thing that’s ever happened to agriculture in America. China has quit buying our soybeans, and I’m scared we aren’t going to ever get that market back,” Wisconsin farmer Craig Myhre told me. “Farmers are hurting terribly under President Trump.”

Such sentiments may explain why Trump, according to Bolton in his new book, turned a trade negotiation with Xi into a discussion about the 2020 election:

He then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.

Trump and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was in the room, deny that this happened. Still, Biden clearly has an opening to hit Trump where it hurts, but it’ll be hard to land the punches.

Alden notes Biden must say he, too, will be critical of China for its trade practices and human rights violations — but not as forcefully as Trump has been. That’s a subtle message to get across during an election year, especially when the theatrics of a trade war are simpler to grasp, and Democrats are less likely to have negative opinions of Beijing.

But Alden believes Biden and Democrats can make two arguments that might stick, outside of Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus.

First, Trump’s abuse of allies, particularly in Asia and Europe, made it harder for Washington to push back on Beijing. The US, then, effectively had to launch the trade war alone. “When dealing with a bully, it’s better to have a big gang on your side,” he said, “and the Trump administration has alienated every member of the gang.”

Second, thanks to the Bolton tell-all, Biden can credibly say Trump lies when he speaks about being a China hawk. Behind closed doors, the president is friendly with Xi and sells out American national interests for his own political gain.

That tracks with what Ely Ratner, a former Biden national security adviser in the White House, told me the Democrats are aiming to get across. “The central message from the Democrats is that China is our top competitor, but that on every metric, Trump has strengthened Beijing’s position and weakened ours,” he said. “For all the bluster and bluff, Trump’s China policy has been a failure.”

To that end, Democrats, according to Ratner, will make the case Trump has made the US less competitive against China across a whole range of sectors: economic, technological, educational, environmental.

If he can make those points and have them resonate, he may have a shot of wresting the China platform back from Trump. That’s already a tall order, one made taller because Biden has China weaknesses Trump will surely exploit.

Why Biden is vulnerable on China

Biden’s argument on China — and, really, the argument of his entire campaign — is that he’s not Trump. But more specifically, he’ll point to his decades of foreign policy experience, including eight years in the White House, as to why he can best manage the relationship with China during a precarious moment.

Some experts, though, think that’ll be a tough sell. “I think the Democrats are more vulnerable on the China issue than the Republicans,” June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami, told me.

Joe Biden, as vice president, and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a state luncheon for China on September 25, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The main critique is that Biden, as the No. 2 person during the Obama administration, did next to nothing to blunt China’s military and economic rise over two terms.

On the military front, despite pushing a “pivot to Asia” to counter Beijing, Dreyer said Obama’s team put few resources behind making it actually happen. In 2015, she noted, Xi promised at the White House that China wouldn’t militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea, an area the country claims mostly for itself.

But over the following months, it became clear that Xi had broken his vow, leading to rising tensions in those waters and between the US, its allies, and China writ large. That militarization persists and continues to be an issue Trump or Biden must contend with.

On economics and trade, Trump’s team and certain experts feel Biden will have trouble responding. “The Obama administration was asleep at the wheel on this issue,” said Alden.

In 2010, major credit card companies like Visa, Mastercard, and American Express pleaded with Obama’s trade representative to take action against China for shutting them out of the country’s market, especially since Beijing had promised them access by 2006. But Obama’s team didn’t succeed, making it an issue for Trump to deal with during trade negotiations.

And in the early parts of his administration, experts say, the Obama White House didn’t really push back on China’s gaming of the World Trade Organization system, basically continuing to cheat on trade at America’s expense. It was only in Obama’s second term that they took the issue more seriously.

And Trump will also go after Biden personally. He’ll certainly make hay out of Biden’s comment last year when he downplayed the country’s economic rise: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” Biden said in Iowa. “They’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The president will also continue to lambast Biden over his son’s business in China, despite a dearth of real evidence of foul play. A Republican-led Senate committee is currently investigating the matter.

These and other arguments will force Biden to come up with a strong defense. Ratner, who is now at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, has a few in mind.

First, the context of the US-China relationship has changed. “The China that Democrats would be facing in 2021 is not the China Democrats were facing a decade prior,” he said. That’s led to a broader reassessment within the party of how America should handle China, which others suggest will constrain Biden’s ability to extend a hand to Beijing if he so desires.

Second, Biden should stand by his record on China. “He has a record of standing up to Xi Jinping and getting results,” Ratner told me, including a 2015 agreement he helped broker on stopping cyber theft and getting China to agree to a global climate deal — though former Obama officials question just how involved he really was.

The University of Miami’s Dreyer, though, thinks all this is too little, too late for the Democrats. They should’ve seen China’s rise as a quest for power in Asia and the world, especially under Xi, and now seek to look tough and prescient on the country when they’ve spent decades cowering on the issue, she said. “There’s no way Trump has done worse than Obama and Biden.”

Two candidates, many claims — and it’s just the start of the Trump-Biden debate on a major foreign policy issue. It’s only likely to get more prominent, and nastier, in the months ahead.