The 2016 election marked a substantial shift in America’s attitude on China. President Trump zeroed in on the “People’s” Republic as the principal economic threat to the United States, blasting his opponents along the way. His victory clued us into just how potent a hawkish approach to China could be: sweeping the rust belt and forging a historic electoral realignment.
Four years later, Americans are now in lockstep with the President in their skepticism of China. 73% of Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of China, ballooning from 47% just four years ago. To be sure, a portion of this should be chalked up to China’s catastrophic deception on COVID-19 but the trend notably began before the crisis.
President Trump’s rhetoric and record on China demonstrate a radical departure from the Washington consensus. He has characterized China as a “threat to the world,” and substantively backed it up. He imposed tariffs on two-thirds of Chinese goods, labeled China a currency manipulator, commissioned investigations of China’s practices, and began negotiations to redefine the trading relationship.
His hardline strategy and pro-growth policies have produced results. While President Obama bled 300,000 manufacturing jobs during his eight-year tenure, President Trump added over 480,000 in just three years, prior to the pandemic. Dating back to the 1970s, the current President has outpaced all of his predecessors in percentage terms of manufacturing job creation. The gains were most striking in the midwestern states that lifted Trump to victory four years ago. Perhaps he located that “magic wand” his ineffectual predecessor often joked about.
In January of 2020, just before the world spun into disarray, the administration secured a Phase one trade pact, composed of higher agricultural purchases and greater protections against forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft. It did not address some thornier issues, but it showed Trump’s unwavering commitment to policy change could extract Chinese concessions.
In the overlapping technological and national security domain, his Commerce Department took the bold action of instituting new export rules against Huawei (China’s chief telecommunications company). These rules weaken China’s ability to receive the semiconductor chips it requires to manufacture cell phones and its 5G infrastructure. Analysts call it a “death knell for Huawei’s global ambitions.” The nascent threat of TikTok was also held in check thanks to Trump’s actions. Oracle, an American company, will now maintain the app’s personal data in its U.S. servers and TikTok’s headquarters will move to Texas.
All of these developments over the last four years are worth preserving and continuing. Former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recognizes this—or at least his advisors do—and has adjusted accordingly.
Harkening back to those jaw-dropping numbers on Americans’ perceptions of China, it is astounding to see the 2020 presidential favorite be the most incessantly pro-China politician of the last twenty years. Joe Biden’s forty-seven years in Washington leave quite the paper trail, particularly in relation to China. In his capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden spearheaded China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. He voted for permanent normal trade relations with China. He even helped end yearly congressional probes of China’s position as a trading partner.
The result: 3.7 million jobs offshored to China since 2001. Even Trump could not stop the irreversible damage these policies wrought. The era of “Chimerica” flourished as companies chose to build supply chains in China. Biden and others who insisted capitulation was the correct policy have been proven wrong every step of the way. Deeper economic ties with China did not foster a shift toward democracy and capitalism, just the opposite. Biden was laughably wrong in his assertion that China would “adhere to international norms in the areas of nonproliferation, human rights and trade.” And he was just as wrong ten years later in 2011 when he said “a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”
This was not merely lip service. The Obama-Biden administration neglected to take on China for their repeated World Trade Organization rule violations. Many of these violations took the form of intellectual property theft and cyber espionage, both of which hasten China’s rise as a global superpower.
Anyone with an ounce of humility would either apologize or step down from the political arena. Not Joe Biden. He is reinventing himself as a China hawk, and playing the American people for fools. It is a maneuver only a politician who has spent forty-seven years of his life in the Washington swamp could pull off.
Biden has sent mixed signals on Trump’s tariffs. He claims he will ramp up 5G in order to combat Chinese growth. In July, Biden unveiled a “Buy American” program to penalize offshoring and incentivize job creation. He has also rolled out advertisements criticizing Trump for not being tough enough on China, suggesting he would be better.
The Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Schlesinger, lays it out quite succinctly in his recent article titled “What’s Biden’s New China Policy? It Looks a Lot Like Trump’s.”
“I think there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices,” said Kurt Campbell, the leading Asia bureaucrat in the Obama State Department, and senior advisor to the Biden campaign.
Perhaps Biden and his advisors can try to play off this obvious 180 as a demonstration of his solid leadership. Instead of staying entrenched in a stale philosophy, Biden nobly realized a tougher attitude toward China is in America’s interest. Just as Hillary Clinton, who raved about the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the “gold standard,” and then magically became an opponent of it when public opinion soured, Biden is simply pulling off that same magic trick.
However, this hardly comports with reality. For all of his recent bluster, Biden failed when lobbed the softball of a lifetime on Trump’s January China travel restrictions. Instead of agreeing with Trump’s hardline approach to China, Biden reflexively denounced him for “hysterical xenophobia.” He chose identity politics over public health. Weakness over strength.
And when he is not reading off a teleprompter to outline a policy he had no hand in creating, he is offering up the same tired rhetoric of his Senate days. In May 2019, he muttered a comment so detached from reality that even Democrats criticized him. In reference to the Chinese government, he said, “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” casting the country as more incompetent than strategic. His incoherence, of course, did not end there. He added, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” downplaying espionage and intellectual property theft.
In August of this year, he promised to end hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs against China, only to have his stance walked back the same day by a Biden aide, who suggested the tariffs would simply undergo re-evaluation.
Democrats are fond of using an old Maya Angelou quote to target Trump. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Biden has done more than enough to show Americans who he is when it comes to addressing the existential threat of China. Look past his new-found, and curiously Trump-like policy positions of this election cycle, and examine his record and rhetoric. Biden is a China appeaser and no amount of recasting to fit the current political winds can change that.
Tyler Unrath is a freshman at Cornell University majoring in Policy Analysis and Management. He is a staff writer at the Cornell Review, where this article originally ran.DONATE
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