The Dragon’s Back: China, US Foreign Policy and the 2020 Election

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Foreign policy is often said to be something that does not win elections, but in certain scenarios it can help lose them. Both Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joseph Biden have focused on presenting different visions in relation to domestic policy, but they also have both made points to outline divergent foreign policy concerns. Biden has made it clear that he wishes the United States to return to Obama-era diplomacy and Trump’s rhetoric against Iran and others has not cooled.[1] However, there is one aspect of foreign policy that both share some similarity in: namely in how to respond to China economically, militarily and culturally. Signs point to both candidates having negative views of China’s emergence as a world power with Vice President Mike Pence declaring, “ But our message to China’s rulers is this: This President will not back down” and Biden remarking how “the South and industrial Midwest…have lost their industry to China”.[2] Despite similarities in their feelings towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC), both candidates are likely to adopt different policy positions in how to actually respond to the rival nation.

Trump’s policies on China will be informed by the policies he has already enacted. Protectionism has been the name of the game for the administration and accordingly the US economic policy towards China has been especially combative in comparison to previous administrations. In 2018, Trump began setting up new tariffs designed to stop China from setting “unfair trade practices” and alleged theft of intellectual property.[3] The idea that the United States has been suffering from a trade deficit from China is not a new one. Since the 1980s and the liberalization of the Chinese economy, many people, including Trump, have thought that China is benefiting more from trade with the United States than the Untied States itself.[4] Trump comes from the school of thought that trade deficits over a long period of time hurt a country’s economy and that China’s entrance in the World Trade Organization led to the current conflict by giving them a favourable trading status.[5] Trump used tariffs to counter this perceived status, the argued trade deficit and the claims that China was intentionally manipulating its currency. The U.S. is now subsumed in a “trade war” with China that has been severely criticized by farmers, Congress and free trade organizations.[6] This behaviour has made relations with China increasingly difficult and has not stopped Beijing’s attempts at expending its sphere of influence. If Trump wins the presidency in November, a continuation and potential escalation of these policies is most likely and is underlined by the way Trump has lambasted the People’s Republic of China over the Coronavirus outbreak.[7]

Biden’s policies will be coloured by his experience as vice president, but will still be framed by the trade conflict going on with China. Biden, while vice president to Barack Obama, developed a strategy of dual narratives. These dual narratives were cooperation and competition as China emerged as one of the leading economic powers in the world. Cooperation was evidenced in the Chinese economic recovery after the 2008 recession via the purchase of US treasury bonds and bilateral trade agreements. However, competition has been an equal driver of the relationship as cybersecurity, trade, and human rights issues kept the US and China at loggerheads. Trump’s main qualms with China have been mostly focused on the realm of trade, but a Biden presidency would likely return to an Obama-era set of dual narratives albeit with a more combative stance on human rights issues.[8] The atrocities in Xinjiang province will be a sticking point for a potential Biden Administration and it is likely to favour an approach that balances economic interests with legitimate concerns about human rights. Biden is also likely to pull back on some of the harsher bits of the current trade conflict in an effort to spur economic recovery after the COVID-19 based economic slowdown.

Both candidates share similar broad views of China as an adversarial power, but they represent very different approaches informed by their time in office and their divergent perspectives when it comes to the role of diplomacy, human rights, and economic policy. Regardless, whoever wins the election is going to have to make hard decisions about how to shape the US relationship with China against the backdrop of a global pandemic and necessary economic recovery.

[1] “Foreign Affairs Issue Launch with Former Vice President Joe Biden.” n.d. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/event/foreign-affairs-issue-launch-former-vice-president-joe-biden.

[2] “The White House.” 2017. The White House. The White House. 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/.; Editors, Biden Forum. 2018. “Geography Can Shape Opportunity. Joe Biden Wants to Change That.” Medium. November 8, 2018. https://bidenforum.org/geography-can-shape-opportunity-joe-biden-wants-to-change-that-1617d07f02c6.

[3] The New York Times. 2018. “Trump’s Trade War With China Is Officially Underway,” July 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/business/china-us-trade-war-trump-tariffs.html.

[4] Schlesinger, Jacob M. 2018. “Trump Forged His Ideas on Trade in the 1980s—and Never Deviated.” WSJ. The Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-forged-his-ideas-on-trade-in-the-1980sand-never-deviated-1542304508.

[5] Lipton, Gabe. 2018. “Trump’s Trade War With China Actually Started at the WTO in 2001.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic. August 14, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/china-trump-trade-united-states/567526/.

[6] Business, Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN. n.d. “First on CNN Business: 600 Companies Including Walmart, Costco and Target Warn Trump on Tariffs.” CNN. Accessed September 10, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/13/business/trade-war-trump-china-walmart-target-costco/index.html.

[7] “Trump, Republicans Wager Anti-China Rhetoric Will Play With Base, But Will It Work More Broadly?” 2020. Kaiser Health News. May 26, 2020. https://khn.org/morning-breakout/trump-republicans-wager-anti-china-rhetoric-will-play-with-base-but-will-it-work-more-broadly/.

[8] Li, Cheng. 2016. “Assessing U.S.-China Relations under the Obama Administration.” Brookings. Brookings. August 30, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/assessing-u-s-china-relations-under-the-obama-administration/.

About Quintin Newman

Quintin Newman is studying a Masters in Public Administration at Xavier University in Ohio, USA. She graduated out of the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public program at Xavier University and has a BA in International Relations. Her undergraduate thesis focused on Russian cyber-security attacks in the 2016 US presidential election. She has studied in France, Israel and Germany. She has also served as the President of Xavier Child’s Play, a non-profit organization, and has worked as a field intern for the campaigns of Representative Sean Casten, Marie Newman and Cincinnati City Council Member Greg Landsman.
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