Whether it’s Trump or Biden, America’s policies on China will continue to shift dramatically

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Since Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, Republicans and Democrats have been at odds on virtually every major point of policy, both foreign and domestic. But regardless of whether Trump or his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, win the upcoming presidential election in November, one policy position appears set to remain on the same course: a tougher, more adversarial stance toward China, especially on issues like trade and national security.

As the Wall Street Journal notes today, the past four years have seen the Democratic Party establishment come around to accepting the Trump administration’s hard line on China—a position that launched the two nations into a trade war and redrew the dynamics of international relations.

And in its bid to defeat Trump, the Biden campaign has come to adopt a similar stance to the current administration on an array of matters related to China; it’s pledged to continue curbing China’s influence in high-tech sectors like artificial intelligence and 5G wireless technology, and has even refused to commit to revoking Trump’s heavy tariffs on Chinese imports.

“I think there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices,” Biden campaign advisor Kurt Campbell, a former Asia official in the State Department during the Obama administration, told the Journal.

Biden has sought to differentiate himself from Trump by criticizing the President’s strategy toward confronting China, while his advisers also shoot down the notion of a “new Cold War” given the continued co-dependence of the two nations’ economies. And it’s likely a Biden administration would look to work more closely with China in cooperating on global challenges like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

Still, Biden’s move toward a more skeptical view of China represents a drastic shift from where establishment Democratic politicians have long stood on U.S.-China relations—from the Clinton-era trade deals that made China an indispensable part of America’s supply chain, to Obama administration policies that sought to develop closer ties to the nation.

Biden himself was a major part of Obama’s push in that regard; as the Journal notes, the Democratic nominee has himself boasted about spending more time with Chinese President Xi Jinping than any other foreign official. “It is in our self-interest that China continue to prosper,” Biden said during a 2011 visit to the country.

The Trump campaign, for its part, has looked to remind people of Biden’s role in a Democratic establishment that permitted China’s rise into a global power, and which allowed millions of American manufacturing jobs to be outsourced to China and other countries. That argument was a key feature of then-candidate Trump’s message of economic populism during the 2016 election, and played a major role in lifting Trump to the presidency.

Now, Biden and the Democratic establishment have found themselves adopting many of the same positions on U.S.-China relations as Trump—not to mention free trade skeptics on the left such as Sen. Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his bid for the White House in 2016, prompting Democratic rival Hillary Clinton to reverse her own position on the trade agreement.

As divisive as many of the President’s policies and politics have proven, he has united Washington behind a more suspicious stance toward a Chinese regime that has recently cracked down on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and is said to have detained upwards of 1 million ethnic Uighurs in internment camps. 

“Regardless of who wins, U.S. policy toward China is going to be tougher over the next five years than the last five years,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Journal. “China has changed, and the U.S. thinking on China has changed.”

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