(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump and Joe Biden used to brag about how well they knew Chinese President Xi Jinping. Barely four months from election day, the talk has turned to who can be tougher on Beijing, with a tell-all book by Trump’s ex-national security adviser adding to the fray.
“Trump rolled over for the Chinese — he took their word for it,” the narrator in one Biden ad says of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A Trump spot counters: “China is the greatest threat to America’s security and our values. Career politician Joe Biden is weak on China.”
Those ads, piggybacking on bipartisan fury in the U.S. at China’s early missteps in alerting the world to the coronavirus outbreak, underscore that Beijing is at the center of this year’s presidential campaign more than any other foreign policy issue.
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s new book, which the Justice Department is trying to prevent from going on sale next week, has sparked even more scrutiny of Trump’s relationship with Xi and provided an opening for Biden. In the memoir, which Trump dismissed as a “compilation of lies,” Bolton says Trump signed off on Xi’s use of internment camps for religious minorities and pleaded with the Chinese leader to help him win re-election by buying more U.S. farm products.
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The debate over strategy toward Beijing comes at a critical time for U.S.-China ties that could shape the relationship for decades to come. The world’s two biggest economies are jockeying over the next leap in mobile technology, rapidly shifting supply lines for entire swaths of the global economy, escalating tensions in the South China Sea and the viability of a first-phase trade deal signed just before the pandemic hit the U.S.
In a sign that the deal is holding, China plans to accelerate purchases of American farm goods to comply with the trade deal after talks in Hawaii this week, Bloomberg News reported Friday. Purchases of everything from soybeans to corn and ethanol will be stepped up after falling behind pledged amounts due to coronavirus disruptions, said two people familiar with the matter.
Both Biden and Trump vow to be tough on Beijing, but they disagree on how they would do that.
Biden has called Xi a “thug” and said during a Democratic primary debate that the Chinese leader doesn’t have a democratic “bone in his body,” citing Beijing’s treatment of detained Muslim Uighurs and its moves to exercise greater control of Hong Kong.
“We’ve got to make it clear: They must play by the rules,” the former vice president said Feb. 25.
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To bolster Biden’s case, his foreign policy advisers say Trump’s rough treatment of historic allies has made it harder to build a unified approach toward China, particularly on issues such as trade, Hong Kong and 5G technology. They say a Biden presidency would confront Beijing where the U.S. must and use the leverage it gains by marshaling allies to compel Chinese cooperation on his administration’s priorities.
“From the strategic point of view there is no doubt that President Trump has strengthened China’s position and weakened ours,” said Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state and top foreign policy adviser to Biden. “The story is so damning that it’s extraordinary he would want to spend a second talking about it.”
Trump’s team has pushed back, saying Biden would be a terrible negotiator of trade deals with Beijing. In a nod to the pandemic that has killed more than 118,000 Americans, they charge the Obama-Biden administration with a failed response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-2010 that many health experts say was well-handled.
Pressing their argument that Biden is soft on China, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and top campaign aides have sought to make the #BeijingBiden hashtag stick to the former vice president. They argue Biden doesn’t understand the threat posed by China, despite more than four decades in Washington.
“Voters want someone who’s going to hold China accountable, who is going to defend America’s interests both in coronavirus and economically,” said Cory Bliss, a Republican strategist. “President Trump has a great contrast to draw with Joe Biden, who has a long history of being weak on China.”
From Trump’s side there’s little mention of rallying allies, and the administration has struggled to build significant opposition to plans by many nations — including European Union members — to allow Huawei Technologies Co.’s 5G technology in their wireless systems.
What’s clear on both sides is the demise of the once widely held belief that embracing China’s economic rise would yield a Beijing more wedded to U.S. and European norms and would soften its authoritarian nature.
Now, with Xi holding the strongest grip over his country since revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, that view has few supporters.
Biden has sought to underscore his understanding of Xi by pointing to the dialogue he had with the Chinese leader when the two were their nations’ vice presidents.
“I spent more time with Xi Jinping than any world leader had by the time we left office,” Biden said during the primary debates. Trump took a similar approach in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, praising Xi for handling the outbreak “very well” and saying Jan. 29 that “our relationship with China now might be the best it’s been in a long, long time.”
Yet with the Covid-19 outbreak having begun in China, both candidates have sought to use it as a cudgel, tapping into the national mood with attitudes toward Beijing at a historic low, according to the Pew Research Center. U.S. lawmakers have found common ground in their anger over China’s treatment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region, its encroachment on Hong Kong and its trade practices.
Trump will surely look to ensure that the benefits from his “phase one” trade deal come to fruition, and may press for an expansion of that agreement if he wins a second term. For Biden, cooperation with China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, will be crucial if his administration is to revive the Paris Climate Accord, combat nuclear nonproliferation and help end the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s in China’s interest to work with us on certain issues and he will engage in that kind of collaboration,” Biden adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview. “But he is going to be firm in the U.S. position on everything from Hong Kong to trade abuses to coronavirus coverup to cyber-enabled economic espionage.”
But the notion of cooperation is anathema for now. Trump on Thursday even suggested on Twitter that the U.S. could completely decouple its economy from China if necessary.
“We are repeating some of the most self-defeating approaches during the Cold War,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, though she said she expects the fever to pass once the campaign is over. “That’s just the nature of presidential campaigns, and it’s not even unique to the U.S.-China relationship. By and large, you’re not going to see any positive words about China in the middle of campaign rhetoric.”
For all its criticism of Trump’s “America First” approach to China and the world, the Biden campaign has been noncommittal on whether he would overturn tariffs or shift from the Trump administration’s push for other countries to exclude Huawei from their fifth-generation telecommunications networks.
On its website, the Biden campaign acknowledges there’s no going back to “business as usual” when it comes to trade, suggesting he would continue with Trump’s push to bring some supply chains back to the U.S.
Three people familiar with Biden’s campaign said the main focus now is winning the election and that there’s a range of views among advisers about how best to push back against China. Specific policies would have to wait, they said.
“I think you would see under a Biden White House a more traditional form of rhetoric,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “He’s made very clear that he would be more interested in working with allies and prioritizing the competition with China rather than pushing back on allies on trade.”
It’s a big bet on both sides because it assumes that China will be willing to play ball in areas that are important to the U.S. and potentially back down on areas that are important to it — like Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“A lot depends on the extent to which China shows it’s willing to have a more constructive relationship,” said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China is going to have a lot to say about that.”
(Updates with Biden adviser’s comment in second paragraph after ‘Possible Cooperation’ subheadline)
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