As China tensions rise, Trump and Biden spar for ‘tough guy’ mantle

Why We Wrote This

Many analysts’ forecasts for the next four years include a continued chill with China. But what would that look like? How the U.S. confronts Beijing will depend on who resides in the White House come January.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
President Donald Trump, left, poses for a photo with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan June 29, 2019. China has become a top election issue as Mr. Trump and Democrat Joe Biden argue over who's tougher against Beijing.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Months after President Donald Trump declared the U.S.-China relationship “the best it’s been in a long, long time,” the administration has changed its tune. On Tuesday, for example, the U.S. ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston closed, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Britain’s recent actions to counter an increasingly assertive Beijing.

No matter who wins in November, analysts say, the spiraling relations between the two superpowers are here for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that a Biden White House and a Trump White House would confront China in similar ways.

Mr. Trump may use sanctions more, while Mr. Biden would likely work more closely with Asian allies to counter Beijing. The two could also differ, experts say, on how they use international accords and institutions to challenge China’s vision of global governance.

But beyond how candidates respond to specific provocations from Beijing, some say China’s rise is forcing a reevaluation of America’s role in the world.

“What has changed in the last few years is that increasingly American public opinion sees us in a long-term competition with China,” says Mira Rapp-Hooper, of the Council on Foreign Relations. That shift extends to concern over “the way the world order will be governed.”

On TV stations across the battleground state of Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump has been running ads that depict former Vice President Joe Biden as weak on China.

There’s a smiling Mr. Biden clinking glasses with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and then there he is telling “folks” that “China is not the problem.”

Not to be outdone, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has also been running ads in swing states blasting the president for going soft on China – in particular on the coronavirus pandemic. One ad reminds viewers that Mr. Trump initially praised Mr. Xi for the “very good job” he was doing to control the outbreak.

Whether or not the ads actually sway any voters is an open question. But what the effort of the two candidates to out-tough each other on China seems to suggest is that, no matter who wins in November, the spiraling relations between the two superpowers are here for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Trump may use sanctions more, while Mr. Biden is likely to work more closely with Asian allies to counter China, some experts say. The former vice president, who has said he has spent more time with Mr. Xi than any other foreign leader – and so has a clearer window into his motivations – is also likely to try to maintain good enough relations with Beijing to work on global issues like climate change.

But the deterioration in U.S.-China relations that some now compare to the Cold War is part of a broad geopolitical shift that actually predates Mr. Trump’s arrival at the White House, others say – and will continue no matter who occupies the Oval Office.

“The shift [to a more adversarial relationship with China] has been bipartisan – it just happened to coincide with the election of Donald Trump,” says James Carafano, vice president of national security and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Democrats were already just as down on China as Republicans, it’s just that Trump’s rhetoric matched where the country was already headed,” he adds. “Any debate is pretty much over, to a point where skepticism on China is demonstrably bipartisan.”

Indeed, just months after President Trump declared the relationship with China “the best it’s been in a long, long time,” the administration has taken a series of steps signaling an adversarial approach to China. On Tuesday the U.S. ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston closed, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to London to praise recent British actions targeting China – and called for the U.S. and Britain to go further together to counter an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Beyond who sounds tougher on job losses to China, or the specifics of how each candidate might respond to Chinese military provocations in the South China Sea, some say the rise of China is essentially forcing a reevaluation of America’s role in the world that is likely to surface in a variety of ways in the presidential campaign.

“China is the first great-power competitor to arise since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so as one result China poses the question for us about the type of 21st century great power we are going to be,” says Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and then-Vice President Joe Biden walk down the red carpet during an arrival ceremony in Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland Sept. 24, 2015. Many analysts expect that Mr. Biden, if elected president in November, would seek to repair U.S. alliances in Asia.

Upgrades ahead?

China has played small parts in some presidential campaigns, Ms. Rapp-Hooper says – as in 1992, when the U.S. response to China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests surfaced in candidate debates.

What is new for this campaign, she says, is how widely China is viewed negatively by the American electorate. “What has changed in the last few years is that increasingly American public opinion sees us in a long-term competition with China,” she adds. That shift extends to concern over “the way the world order will be governed.” 

Ms. Rapp-Hooper does not agree, however, that broad mistrust means China policy is largely precast no matter who wins the White House.

On two key fronts, how a Biden White House confronts China would likely differ significantly from the Trump approach, she says: One is how the U.S. interacts with its Asian allies, and the other is how the U.S. envisions its involvement in international accords and institutions as a means of challenging China’s vision of global governance.

Based on Mr. Biden’s foreign-policy track record, Ms. Rapp-Hooper says she would expect the former vice president not just to “repair” but to “set about to renovate the alliance system for the 21st century.” Part of such a renewed focus would be “creating new strategies and institutions within the alliances to respond to concerns in non-military domains” such as cyberattacks and disinformation.

Some former national security officials now aligned with the Biden campaign have speculated that Mr. Xi would prefer Mr. Trump to win based on the assumption that a President Biden would rebuild America’s alliances.

Yet while Mr. Trump may have been labelled the anti-alliance president based on his questioning of their relevance and demands they pay their way, Mr. Carafano says it’s simply not accurate to conclude that America’s alliances, particularly in Asia, are in disrepair.

“The people saying relations with our Asian allies need repair are ignoring reality on the ground,” he says. “Look at U.S.-Australia relations – never stronger. U.S.-Japan? Never stronger. India has never been closer to the U.S.,” he adds, “and as for U.S.-South Korea relations, they’re not in trouble.”

Not everyone agrees.

“The way you treat allies is so important, and here’s Trump telling South Korea ‘You have to pay even more for the troops we have there,’ but what does that get you, really?” says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington. “We’re doing pretty much the same thing with Japan.”

Even if Mr. Biden wins the White House, just returning to where relations with Asian allies were four years ago won’t be the answer, U.S.-China experts say.

“A simple restoration won’t be enough,” says Ms. Rapp-Hooper, who has just published the book “Shields of the Republic,” which looks at how America’s alliances contribute to its security. “There is a huge alliance renovation agenda to be undertaken no matter who our next leader is.”

New realities

Beyond America’s alliances, Ms. Rapp-Hooper says she would expect a President Biden to “return to and try to renovate” a number of international institutions and accords that President Trump has abandoned, as a way of countering China’s emboldened efforts to impose its more authoritarian vision. Instead of quitting the World Health Organization and ceding it to China’s influence, for example, she would expect Mr. Biden to counter China from within.

Mr. Carafano agrees that international institutions have increasingly become the arena for powers like the U.S. and China to impose their values – but he says Mr. Trump has demonstrated an approach that differs from the post-World War II pattern.

“International organizations are no longer about establishing international norms,” he says, “now they have largely become places where great powers battle it out to expand their power.”

And whereas a President Biden would “want to be at every table” no matter the proven value of an organization, he says, President Trump would “continue to use the whole quiver” – sticking with useful forums, seeking to reform some, or leaving “hopeless cases” and establishing alternatives – to compete with China.

In any case, Mr. Korb of CAP says that whoever wins in November, simply squaring off against China and dividing the world into separate camps, like some new Cold War, won’t be an option.

“China has made it clear they’re not going to make the political changes we once thought we could encourage them to make, but that doesn’t mean we can just cut all ties to them given how intertwined our economies are,” Mr. Korb says. “We don’t have the flexibility with China we once had,” he adds, “and whoever is president will have to work with that.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.