Oct 29, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden's China plan: Bring allies

Photo illustration of Biden taking down his aviator sunglasses to glare at the stars in the Chinese flag
Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden is planning to confront China across the globe, embracing some of President Trump's goals but rejecting his means.

The big picture: By starting a trade war with China, Trump has fundamentally altered the U.S.- China relationship — and forced both Republicans and Democrats to accept a more confrontational approach towards Beijing.

  • Biden has mostly accepted the new consensus, but insists that he’ll be more effective in challenging China by coordinating with allies, instead of going it alone.
  • “People in Beijing may be nervous about Joe Biden because they recognize that he is going to work with allies,” said Jeffrey Prescott, a Biden adviser.

What we are watching: Biden has called President Xi Jinping a “thug” and his campaign has accused China of “genocide” of Uighurs in Xinjiang, a term that the Trump administration has not deployed.

  • Michèle Flournoy, a good bet to head Biden's Pentagon, suggested in June that the U.S. should have the capability to “to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”
  • Biden has also hit Trump for being “the first American president in three decades who has not met or spoken with His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” and has pledged to meet with Tibet’s spiritual leader as president.

Go deeper: If Trump sees China mainly through a trade and coronavirus lens, Biden views the relationship as multifaceted contest that will determine the international order for several generations.

  • “There’s a technology competition, a military competition, an economic competition, an ideological competition and a diplomatic competition,” said Ely Rattner, a Biden China adviser. “It’s a big task.”

The backstory: For the first three years of his presidency, Trump blamed China for many of America's woes, from hollowed-out industrial cities to strung-out rural towns. He unilaterally imposed a series of tariffs, which at one point included levies on more than $500 billion in Chinese goods.

  • This January, he signed a "phase one" trade deal, declared victory and prepared to campaign on a roaring economy.
  • Then the coronavirus hit, and after initially praising Xi's response, Trump began to blame China for sending the world "the plague."
  • This summer, Trump shuttered China’s consulate in Houston, threatened to ban TikTok, worked to delist Chinese companies from U.S. exchanges and sanctioned Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

The intrigue: Biden called Trump's trade pact “hollow,” but he hasn’t said whether he’ll cancel the tariffs that are currently in place on some $360 billion of Chinese goods.

The bottom line: If elected, Biden's immediate decisions on tariffs — and potentially Taiwan — will set the tone for his relationship with China.

  • But he'll make sure to always consult allies and avoid the kind of one-on-one showdowns that Trump relished.
  • And he won't score the relationship just by looking at trade deficits.
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