Trump Launched A Trade War Against China. Don’t Look To Biden To Reverse It

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President Trump poses for a photo with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019. President-elect Joe Biden will find it hard to change the confrontational approach to China, although he’s likely to set a more polite tone.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Susan Walsh/AP

Biden And Trump Battle Over Who Is ‘Weak On China’

It’s a marked change for an incoming president who voted for NAFTA, despite later expressing misgivings about it. He also once voted to set the path for China to enter the World Trade Organization, eventually helping fuel the Asian country’s incredible rise as a manufacturing superpower.

But Trump, experts note, has successfully shifted the debate on China by repeatedly accusing Beijing of predatory policies that gutted American industries, even if few companies have relocated back to the United States.

Meanwhile, years of job losses and factory closures have hardened public views about trade, especially in key electoral states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, according to Arthur Dong, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

«Biden, I think, is well aware of that,» says Dong.

The hostility toward China is shared by unions and left-wing groups that helped elect Biden and see previous Democratic support for trade agreements such as NAFTA as a betrayal.

«I don’t think the 1990s-style Democratic party is fit for today’s electorate or today’s economy, and I hope that Joe Biden appoints personnel around him who understand that,» says Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive group tied to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Vice President Joe Biden walk down the red carpet on the tarmac during an arrival ceremony in Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Sept. 24, 2015. Biden is under pressure from both the left and the right to continue pressuring China on trade.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

Asia-Pacific Allies Speak With Biden As Transition Continues To Move Forward

That may be easier said than done. Joining with allies to contain Beijing was the impetus for the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a gargantuan trade deal among 12 Pacific-Rim nations that excluded China.

But the TPP was scrapped by Trump as soon as he took office, and Biden has said he won’t support it without significant improvements in labor and environmental safeguards.

Meanwhile, the world has moved on without the United States. Over the weekend, China and 15 other countries signed a trade pact of their own, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

National Security
Biden’s Worldview Calls For U.S. To Be Center Stage In Global Affairs

Biden’s effort to lead other countries in containing China faces another barrier as well.

Trump clashed over trade not just with China but with friendly countries such as Canada and Mexico, angering key allies and damaging U.S. leadership abroad, says Wendy Cutler, former acting U.S. deputy trade representative.

«There’s a lot of mistrust among our allies and partners with the United States, specifically with respect to trade,» Cutler says. «And, frankly, countries are increasingly fed up with us.»

And then, there’s the biggest hurdle of all: Biden’s top priority will be bringing the U.S. economy back from the pandemic’s economic downturn, pushing other issues to the side, according to Cutler.

«Trade is not going to be a front-and-center issue for this administration as it was for the Trump Administration,» she said. «There are a lot of domestic issues that need urgent attention.»

Still, there is one way Biden is widely expected to change the U.S. relationship with China. After nearly four years of Trump’s bitter attacks against China, including over the pandemic, most experts expect at least the tone will change.

«Trump’s trade policy has been defined by protectionism and cronyism and mean-spiritedness,» says Dan Ikenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute. «I think President Biden’s trade policy will be more polite.»

  • U.S.-China relations
  • China trade
  • President Trump
  • global trade
  • Xi Jinping
  • China
  • Joe Biden


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