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Would Biden get 'tough' on China?

When he was vice president, Joe Biden and other officials had a more optimistic view of Beijing. His outlook has evolved, as has the consensus in Washington.
Vice President Biden and China's Vice President Xi during a business roundtable event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington
Xi Jinping and Vice President Joe Biden during a business roundtable event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on Feb. 14, 2012.Larry Downing / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — 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."

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.

Scissors said Biden's comments about China over the years were sometimes naive, but he said it was misleading to suggest that he would return to policies from 10 years ago, given the dramatic changes in attitudes about China. "The world has changed. Congress has changed," he said. But he added that it was an open question what specific steps Biden was ready to take if elected.

China expert Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution, who advised President Bill Clinton, said, "I think Biden will be every bit as tough as Trump is, but I think his approach will be more consistent and be more strategic."

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John Ullyot, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, rejected accusations that the Trump administration has alienated allies and failed to promptly call out China over its clampdown in Hong Kong or its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

"The President took actions that impose real cost on the Chinese Communist Party for its atrocities against the Uyghurs and other minorities," Ullyot said in an email.

Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his recently published memoir that the president gave Xi a green light to build detention camps for Uighurs in a meeting last year. The White House has denied the account. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump officials have repeatedly condemned China over its treatment of the Uighur community,

Last month, the top U.S. counterintelligence official said, "China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection."

Trump's supporters have seized on that assessment, saying the president's unpredictable style has wrong-footed China. But critics argue that Trump has tarnished America's image and signaled a U.S. retreat from the international arena, handing Beijing an opportunity to assert itself at the United Nations and elsewhere. Some former Chinese officials and commentators say that Trump has given China a golden opportunity and that the regime would reap the rewards of four more years of Trump.

"I think, from China's perspective, while some predictability is nice, having the United States severely weakened on the world stage, having the U.S. strategic position eroded, is something that they would love to see more of," said Biden campaign adviser Jeff Prescott, who was a senior official in the Obama administration.

Among voters, polls indicate that Trump has failed to turn his China bashing into a political advantage. In three of four surveys conducted in May and June, Biden had an edge over Trump when voters were asked who would be better at handling China.

As Trump and Biden try to outdo each other in talking tough about China, it's unclear whether either candidate has figured out how to counter the regime. Although more conciliatory approaches by previous administrations have been criticized as failures, Trump's "get tough" policies have so far failed to change China's behavior, experts said.

The president has taken unprecedented steps to push back against China, imposing tariffs, seeking to block Huawei from entering Western markets, slapping a long list of sanctions on China and closing Beijing's consulate in Houston over allegations of espionage. But China has yet to back off of its trade policies, and it doubled down on its claims in the South China Sea and pressed ahead with clampdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang despite an international outcry.

Since entering the Senate in the 1970s, Biden has always been known as a pragmatist, wary of rigid doctrine and willing to compromise. Unlike some China hawks in and outside the Trump administration, he doesn't speak about the competition with Beijing as a civilizational struggle akin to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Even as Biden has vowed to stand up to China, he would likely remain open to cooperation on some major issues over which the two countries share common ground — climate change, counterterrorism and curbing the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, his advisers and former officials said.

But China has often pushed for concessions on other unrelated disputes in return for cooperating on issues Washington deems important, said Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation. "If you want the Chinese to cooperate, you are going to pay a price," Cheng said.

Biden's advisers point to an episode seven years ago to illustrate how Biden would approach the U.S.-China relationship.

In 2013, Biden, then the vice president, flew to Beijing after China announced that all aircraft flying over the East China Sea would have to seek permission from Beijing.

"He didn't holler and bluster," said Jake Sullivan, who was in the room as Biden's national security adviser at the time.

"He just very calmly, firmly, directly said to Xi Jinping: 'So I heard you guys did this. We are not going to honor it. We are not going to respect it. In fact, we're going to fly our own military aircraft through it without complying.'"

Hours later, in the same visit to Beijing, Biden proposed cooperating with China to tackle climate change, said Sullivan, now an adviser to Biden's presidential campaign. The two agreed that the U.S. and China should work together on climate, and that helped lay the groundwork for a bilateral deal and eventually the 2015 Paris climate accords, he said.

"That meeting is an encapsulation of the way that Joe Biden looks at this, which is there is no reason to think we can't be tough, direct, decisive and engage with our allies to push back on China in a range of different areas and also work with them where it's in our interest," Sullivan said.

"That's the kind of attitude that he will take with him into the White House."