Donald Trump’s campaign is itching to take on Joe Biden over his pro-free trade past and his comments downplaying the China threat — an issue Republicans see as especially potent in critical Rust Belt states where Trump is struggling and the former vice president has strength.
But in interviews with POLITICO, several current and former Biden aides said his recent rhetoric calling fears of China’s rise overblown was no gaffe. They say Biden relishes going to battle with Trump over China, certain that his message of confidence in American might will prevail over Trump’s alarmist rhetoric and tariff-driven trade war with Beijing.
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“Trump’s erratic and impulsive approach to China is causing families economic pain,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “Joe Biden would rally our friends and allies to hold China accountable.”
How to manage the rise of China is one of the trickiest and most important foreign policy issues in the 2020 race, one that affects voters’ wallets while also speaking to grander, even existential questions about America’s global standing. It has caused divisions within both the Democratic Party and the GOP, pitting protectionists against free-traders.
Biden is in a unique spot. He has spent significant time with China’s leaders, and his long foreign policy track record as a senator and vice president offers lots of fodder — sometimes the same fodder — for friends and foes alike on China. His nuanced message also has made it easy for critics to take liberties with his words.
This week, conservatives blasted Biden after he appeared to blow off the China threat by telling a New Hampshire audience: “Our workers are literally three times as productive as workers … in Asia. So what are we worried about?”
Afterward a Fox Business commentator called Biden “either massively naïve or deliberately trying to be provocative.”
And last month in Iowa, Biden seemed to dismiss Beijing by saying, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man! …They’re not competition for us.” Trump slammed Biden’s comments as “very dumb” and some of Biden’s 2020 Democratic primary competitors piled on, too.
“It’s wrong to pretend that China isn’t one of our major economic competitors,” tweeted the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which has criticized free trade deals Biden supported while serving as No. 2 to Barack Obama.
Aides to Biden insist his comments have been taken out of context.
Biden believes without question that “China presents a real challenge, real competition,” one aide said. But he won’t play on people’s fears that China is taking over the world or that America’s heyday is over, the person said. And instead of just talking about the need to be tough on China as Trump does, Biden will cast himself as “tough but smart.”
“Vice President Biden doesn’t bet against America,” a different Biden aide said.
The advisers say Biden can point to some of his past face-offs with the Chinese to prove his mettle.
In 2013, Beijing declared the creation of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea, infuriating the U.S. and allies such as Japan. Biden traveled to China with a stern message: the U.S. wasn’t going to recognize the zone. In fact, U.S. military aircraft had already flown through it without Chinese permission and would keep doing so.
“No one should underestimate or question [America’s] staying power” in the Asia-Pacific, Biden said later in South Korea, after his private sessions with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“His message to Xi in Beijing was, ‘We’re going to show you and the world it doesn’t count,’” a former Obama administration official close to Biden recalled. “You guys shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing because we’re going to …operate as though it doesn’t exist.’”
“It was interesting because Xi didn’t know what to say. Biden, in a way, dictated the pace,” the former official added.
Another example of a Biden-driven success, advisers said, was his lesser-known role in a 2015 deal between China and the U.S. to curb cyber espionage on private companies, attacks that often saw China stealing trade secrets from U.S. firms.
Biden helped persuade Xi that such commercial spying was a separate issue from the more traditional, and more acceptable, political espionage both governments have long carried out, aides to the former vice president said.
Biden also spent many hours with Xi as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy to focus more on Asia and China in particular. So the Democrat can say he knows exactly who he’s up against were he to win the White House.
Biden aides declined to give specifics about the Democrat’s plans on the highly sensitive issue of trade; the campaign is expected to roll out a trade agenda in the coming months.
They indicated, however, that Biden will point to the many trade-related disputes the Obama administration won against China through the World Trade Organization as an example of how he would be tough and use existing tools to hold Beijing accountable. Biden also will call for major new investment in U.S. infrastructure, education and more to ensure that Americans retain a competitive edge over the Chinese.
Perhaps above all, Biden plans to emphasize that, unlike Trump, he will rally other countries to America’s side to present a united front against China.
Emphasizing alliances also gives Biden an avenue to defend the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive multi-national trade agreement that the Obama administration helped craft in part to counter China. Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the TPP and many progressive Democrats oppose it as well.
Biden aides argue that Trump’s go-it-alone approach to Beijing undermines his blunt talk about holding Beijing accountable for its aggressions on trade and other fronts, especially because the president has little to show for it.
If Trump’s tariffs stay in place, the trade war continues and prices keep going up for Americans, Biden aides expect even Trump’s support in rural areas will fade by this time next year. If Trump does strike a trade deal with China, Biden aides are betting they can poke holes in it.
But Republicans see weaknesses in Biden where his aides see strength. They note that China never rescinded the air defense identification zone and point to reports that the cyber agreement is falling apart.
Biden may think the Obama administration outsmarted the Chinese, but the Chinese probably believe otherwise because they are thinking long term, said a Republican who served in the George W. Bush administration. “Their approach on things like the … air defense zone is incrementalism,” he said.
Even some critics of the Obama-Biden approach to China said they deserve credit for recognizing that the rise of China required a “rebalance” in U.S. foreign policy.
But attitudes toward China are hardening within both parties as the scale of China’s ambitions become clearer and Trump’s willingness to confront the Chinese head on has gained resonance. Defending the Obama team’s more cool-headed approach could be more difficult in this environment.
The Trump campaign certainly intends to use Biden’s record against him.
“Donald Trump is the first president to stand up to China’s decades-long record of cheating and unfair trade practices,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. ”Joe Biden, incredibly, dismisses China as an economic competitor, so it’s little wonder that while Biden was in office he welcomed China’s rise and sat back and watched as the Chinese ate America’s lunch.”
Biden may have another weak spot on China: questions about his son Hunter’s business dealings there. A lawyer for Hunter Biden has dismissed allegations of wrongdoing, according to media reports, but that doesn’t mean Trump won’t use his megaphone to talk about them.
Democratic strategists and others who watch the U.S.-China relationship closely say that Trump’s support in states such as Iowa has yet to degrade in any meaningful way, possibly because the president has promised billions in bailouts to farmers battered by the trade war.
But if Biden wants to gain votes beyond his base, he will need to fine tune his message, and show a little more teeth against Beijing, some said.
“I would suggest that Vice President Biden probably is a little bit off target when he says they’re not a major competitor,” said Kirk Leeds, chief executive officer of the Iowa Soybean Association.
But he and others said what could really move votes toward Biden is if he offers detailed plans about his strategy toward China. That includes how the U.S. plans to recapture parts of the Chinese market it may lose as the trade war keeps up.
“Farmers do not want bailouts from the government,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist. “They want to have access to a market. And they want certainty that they’ll have access so they can plan.”
Biden aides agreed with that assessment.
“We have the most divisive president in modern memory,” one said, “but people are really not so interested in fighting, they’re interested in fixing.”