If elected, Biden set to carve own brand of tough-on-China policy

Bloomberg September 29 | Updated on September 29, 2020 Published on September 29, 2020

Team Biden expects China to be key topic in presidential debate

US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is preparing to face tough questions in Tuesday’s debate on how he would approach China if he wins the White House in November.

His team is privately acknowledging that they expect the issue to be a focus during the first debate in Cleveland, Ohio, according to a person familiar with their planning. Over the past week, Biden advisers have honed in on questions about the world’s second largest economy, anticipating attacks from President Donald Trump on the former vice-president’s record of dealing with Beijing.

If he beats Trump, Biden will need to decide whether to scrap, keep or escalate the billions in tariffs levied against Chinese imports, and whether to stick to or renegotiate the partial trade deal Trump signed in January.

Also read: Biden has upper hand over Trump in expectations game for debate

He’d have to determine if his administration continues the sanctions imposed on Chinese officials for their crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang and possibly expand those sanctions further.

Biden would also inherit a litany of restrictions to cut off Chinese technology companies access to American intellectual property and a patchwork of relationships across the region that could help, or complicate, tensions with China.

Domestic priorities

Biden’s campaign advisers say they would prioritise domestic issues like investing in research and development and US manufacturing to compete with Beijing from a position of strength — and deal with international matters like trade later. But the multifaceted rivalry with China will be difficult to ignore, and senior policy advisers including longtime Biden hand Jake Sullivan and former deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken have already publicly conceded as much.

Also read: Trump or Biden may not face such a terrible economy in 2021

“China poses a growing challenge. It’s arguably the biggest challenge we face from another nation-state,” Blinken said last week at an event hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think the question is who’s tough or who’s weak on China. The question is who has the most effective strategy to protect and advance our security, our prosperity, our values.”

On the campaign trail to date, Biden has offered little detail on how he’d deal with China’s economic ascent — perhaps to maintain maximum flexibility should he win the election. In some instances, he may have a hard time undoing existing policy. Both parties in Congress have overwhelmingly been in favour of tougher actions against Beijing on tech, human rights and trade.

Trump has touted his record on China frequently, boasting he’s the toughest president and the first to take on the Asian giant. The president’s campaign has produced multiple TV ads focusing on Biden’s past comments that China’s rise was good for the US.

By comparison, Biden’s ads have criticised Trump for downplaying the threat of the virus as it spread in China and for policies that allowed the Chinese nation to grow stronger.

One thing the business community is hoping for: more adherence to the rule of law when it comes to actions on national security grounds, says Steven Okun, senior adviser for consulting firm McLarty Associates. Under the Trump administration, the definition of national security has expanded to capture areas like competition and human rights.

The Trump administration this month cited national security when it announced a ban on Chinas WeChat and TikTok from U.S. app stores. A federal judge this week temporarily blocked the White Houses ban on TikTok, but the Commerce Department vowed to defend the underlying executive order from legal challenges. Separately -- to avoid a ban --Tiktok parent ByteDance is negotiating with Oracle Corp. and the U.S. government to take a stake in the Chinese company.

Blinken noted the Biden team would hone in on commercial cyber espionage after Beijing fell back on a 2015 agreement between Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping that laid out very clear demands and specific consequences if China did not seize espionage against U.S. businesses.

But trying to fully decouple from China, as some have suggested, I think is unrealistic and ultimately counterproductive, he said.

Copyright2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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Published on September 29, 2020
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