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Joe Biden with Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP) Joe Biden with Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP)

Joe Biden with Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP)

Noah Y. Kim
By Noah Y. Kim September 14, 2020

If Your Time is short

• Despite their campaign messaging, Biden and Trump have similar China policies. Both believe that the U.S. should seek to become less dependent on Chinese imports and restore critical domestic supply chains.

• Biden believes that the U.S. should work with allies on China policy. The Trump administration has pursued a strategy of confronting China unilaterally. 

• Experts said that Biden would likely use the bully pulpit to criticize China for its human rights abuses while continuing to negotiate with it on economic policy. Trump’s record on human rights has been more mixed.  

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have released ads accusing each other of cozying up to China, and President Trump even went so far as to tell a conservative radio host that Americans would have to "learn to speak Chinese" if Biden was elected. 

The increasingly adversarial U.S.-China relationship has become a central issue on the campaign trail, with both candidates invoking the external threat of the Chinese Communist Party to deepen the stakes of an already crucial election. 

The next president’s outlook on China will have a significant impact on the future of geopolitics. But despite what the ads say, Biden and Trump are actually in agreement on many critical issues, according to experts in trade and foreign policy, and a Biden administration would constitute less of a fundamental reorientation of U.S.-China relations and more of a shift in strategy. 

However, Biden would likely discard certain parts of the Trump agenda, confronting China with allies, rather than picking fights with it unilaterally, and taking a more consistent stand against human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party. A second Trump term would probably bring with it a Cold War-style economic policy involving broad sanctions and further efforts to decouple the U.S. and China economies.

Here, we’ll explain the similarities and differences between Biden and Trump on China.

Biden’s evolution

In his past roles as senator and then vice president, Biden stuck to the bipartisan consensus that integrating China into the international economic order would expose it to democratic ideas and lead it to liberalize. 

However, China didn’t follow the course predicted by both liberal and conservative analysts. Even as China became more globalized, the Chinese Communist Party cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, persecuted ethnic minorities, pursued an aggressive foreign policy and strictly limited the flow of information within the country’s borders. 

Many people who once saw China as a potential partner have begun to reevaluate their outlook. "The whole country has shifted its views about how China is perceived with respect to being both an economic and geopolitical threat," said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a consumer advocacy organization. "A more critical, wary perspective of China is now the mainstream."

Biden’s opinions have shifted with the rest of the country’s, and he now views China as a formidable strategic challenge. "The United States does need to get tough with China," he wrote in an essay for Foreign Affairs in March. He has promised to impose "swift economic sanctions" if Beijing tries to silence U.S. companies, and he calls Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader, a "thug." 

Similar economic policies

Biden’s changed attitude toward China has filtered into his policy agenda. Most notably, he and many of his advisers have reversed their positions on free trade, speaking in favor of protectionist economic policies that would shore up domestic manufacturing and restrict certain Chinese imports. 

However, they have also stressed that they would pursue a more cautious line than Trump, whose aggressive trade policy with China sometimes backfired on American workers. After Trump taxed billions of dollars of Chinese goods, China retaliated by placing tariffs on soybean, dairy and pork products, eventually costing American farmers an estimated $14.4 billion in sales. 

Generally, Biden and Trump’s similarities outweigh their differences, and Biden has essentially said that Trump’s economic agenda was poorly executed rather than fundamentally unsound. 

For example, both candidates have announced that they intend to shift supply chains for medical goods and pharmaceuticals away from China in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Biden’s plan calls for a periodic review of supply chain vulnerabilities, restrictions on Chinese imports, investments in skills training for U.S. workers in critical industries, and a slate of incentives aimed to shift domestic production toward products necessary to handle a national crisis. These parts of Biden’s agenda are not substantially different from that of the Trump administration, which has pledged tax benefits for companies in essential industries like pharmaceuticals and robotics that bring their manufacturing back to the U.S.; weighed additional tariffs on Chinese imports; and used the Defense Production Act to direct U.S. manufacturers to produce medical equipment.

In addition, experts believe that Biden will face pressure from pro-labor forces within his coalition to maintain many of the tariffs that Trump imposed on Chinese goods. Biden has been ambiguous about the tariffs, saying only that he will review them while in office. 

However, under a Biden presidency, tariffs likely wouldn’t be the go-to tool that they’ve been under the Trump administration. "Donald Trump thinks tariffs are the solution to every problem. For every nail out there, his hammer is a tariff," said Edward Alden, a trade policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "In a Biden administration, tariffs would be one of a number of different tools." 

Working with allies or going it alone?

Perhaps the central disagreement between Biden and Trump is the role they see U.S. allies playing in a confrontation with China. Biden has repeatedly stressed that he intends to rebuild the alliances that Trump has weakened and use them to oppose China on the world stage. Trump has pursued what Alden calls a "go it alone" policy, both confronting and negotiating with China without consulting with allies.  

In keeping with a hardline approach to China, Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from multinational institutions like the World Health Organization, which he sees as subject to Chinese influence. Biden has not ruled out partnering with China to solve global issues such as climate change and public health. "The most effective way to meet (China’s) challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security," he wrote in his Foreign Affairs essay.

But Biden’s multilateral approach could put limits on his ability to pursue the protectionist economic policies that he intends to adopt, according to David Dollar, the U.S. Treasury’s former economic and financial emissary to China. 

"The areas where we can be sure of Biden action would be rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and rejoining the World Health Organization," Dollar said. "The administration’s going to have to work with China on all those global issues, so if Biden is serious about working multilaterally, that frankly puts some limits on what you can do in terms of protectionist policy." 

Human rights

Biden also differs from Trump on speaking out against human rights violations committed by the Chinese Communist Party, including the mass imprisonment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Biden has signaled that he would more consistently criticize China for these transgressions. 

Although members of the Trump administration have condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Trump himself has remained silent. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton alleged in a recent book that Trump told Xi to continue building the camps and called it "exactly the right thing to do." CNN reported that Trump promised Xi that the U.S. wouldn’t speak out about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while the countries engaged in trade negotiations. 

However, the Trump administration has also taken steps to punish China for its actions, sanctioning Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, as well as 11 individuals whom it deems responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. Some activists have called Trump’s use of human rights policy opportunistic, claiming that sanctions against Chinese officials were passed as the administration sought to blame China for the coronavirus pandemic rather than as a matter of principle. 

"I would expect the Biden administration to be more consistent," said Dollar. "You would get the president using the bully pulpit to speak out on human rights issues more than we’ve seen under President Trump." 

Dollar believes that Biden’s approach to human rights would likely resemble that of European countries that have spoken publicly about Uighurs and Hong Kong but have continued to negotiate with China on economic issues. 

"I would expect the Biden team to end up in that traditional place, where we speak about human rights issues but we don’t let that stop us from cooperating with China on climate change or on economic integration," he said. 

If Trump won re-election, he would probably continue to use human rights in order to pressure China on other issues, rather than as a tool to rein in the Communist Party’s abuses. But it’s also possible that China hawks within the administration like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could also sway Trump to take a firmer and more coherent stand on the issue. 

"This president has a lack of interest in human rights issues, but some members of his cabinet have made very hostile statements, and you’ve got those (Republican senators) staking out very hawkish positions," said Dollar. "What you have is convoluted."

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Our Sources

Axios, "Bolton alleges Trump encouraged Xi to continue with Uighur detainment camps," Jun. 18, 2020

CNN, "Trump promised Xi US silence on Hong Kong democracy protests as trade talks stalled," Oct. 4, 2019

CNN, "Trump says Americans will have to learn Chinese if Biden wins but offers little condemnation of Beijing," Aug. 11, 2020

Donald Trump campaign, "Trump campaign announces President Trump’s 2nd term agenda: Fighting for you!" 2020

Foreign Affairs, "America must lead again," Mar./Apr. 2020

Foreign Affairs, "The China reckoning," Mar./Apr. 2018

The Guardian, "US imposes sanctions on Chinese 'state-within-a-state' linked to Xinjiang abuses," Jul. 31, 2020

Joe Biden campaign, "The Biden plan to rebuild U.S. supply chains and ensure the U.S. does not face future shortages of critical equipment," 2020

National Bureau of Economic Research, "The impact of retaliatory tariffs on agricultural and food trade," May 2020

The New York Times, "Joe Biden’s China journey," Sep. 6, 2020

The New York Times, "Trump’s trade appeals to China still left farmers reeling," June 19, 2020

PolitiFact, "Ad watch: Biden attacks Trump on China and coronavirus," Apr. 20, 2020

PolitiFact, "Ad Watch: Donald Trump’s video about Joe Biden and China is rife with omission, deceptive editing," Apr. 15, 2020

Reuters, "Biden says new China national security law a 'death blow,' weighs sanctions," July 1, 2020

Reuters, "Trump administration pushing to rip global supply chains from China: officials," May 4, 2020

South China Morning Post, "Joe Biden faces pressure to separate China trade policy from Donald Trump’s in US election," Sep. 1, 2020

Stat News, "Trump administration submits formal notice of withdrawal from WHO," Jul. 7, 2020

U.S. Department of the Treasury, "Treasury sanctions individuals for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy," Aug. 7, 2020

Wall Street Journal, "John Bolton: The scandal of Trump’s China policy," June 17, 2020

The Washington Post, "Once reluctant to hit China on human rights, Trump moves to use the issue as a cudgel amid growing tensions," Aug. 9, 2020

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