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CvT: Trump vs. Biden on China – the Potential Policy Perspective

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With the presidential election right around the corner, the two US presidential candidates’ stances on foreign policy, namely Sino-US relations, have become a topic of heated discussion. As the bilateral relationship continues to spiral at a concerning pace, each candidate’s China strategy will inevitably become a key focal point of their campaign. Let’s take a look at some of the claims made by the candidates, and the feasibility of their implementation.

Trump Talk

Trump’s approach to China has favored hard-lines and protectionist policy – but at his core, Trump is more a showman and less a China hawk. If re-elected, Trump is likely to continue his hard-line stance on China over the short-term but sue for peace over the mid- to long-term.

  • As the era of American manufacturing declines, having lost 5 million jobs in the industry since 1998, Trump campaigned on the premise of bringing these jobs back from China. While Trump has claimed that America can reshore many of these jobs, decades of globalization have favored a “race to the bottom” for general American manufacturing as the US economy transitioned towards high precision manufacturing and importing high volumes of goods to support a consumer economy. Recovery of the domestic manufacturing industry is unlikely due to the inherent comparative advantages that drive US economic strength. In addition, innumerable US multinational corporations are “in China for China,” pursuing localized manufacturing operations for goods sold in China to the Chinese market. Due to the nature of this approach, reshoring these manufacturing jobs would be impractical. As a result, Trump may be compelled to rebalance the US-China economic relationship by calling for exaggerated terms within the Phase One trade deal and any other subsequent bilateral exchanges that may yet take place.
  • Trump has adopted a starkly protectionist approach to US trade in an effort to rebalance trade with China. From banning Chinese tech firms and strengthening domestic supply chains to blocking US companies that outsource manufacturing jobs from winning federal contracts, Trump has stated his intent to lessen US dependence on China while incentivizing “Buying America.” While there is precedent of Washington successfully attracting American businesses back to the US through tax credits and other business incentives, this kind of approach to trade would drive short-term gains while resigning medium- to long-term global competitiveness for American multinational corporations as production costs rise, economies of scale shrink, and businesses are subjected to a less efficient operating environment, among other inefficiencies.

Biden’s Plan

Though Biden favors engagement with China more than Trump, his occasionally contradictory approach to China is emblematic of an unaligned China strategy within the Democratic party. A Biden presidency done right could reap more fruitful negotiations on the road to normalized relations, but his hardline stance on China’s human rights issues and security infringements could still fan the flames on other fronts.

  • Biden has taken a progressive approach to social issues, and maintains Washington’s current stance on sanctions on China over the passage of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. If elected, Biden is likely to continue imposing economic sanctions on individuals, companies, and financial institutions associated with the undermining of Hong Kong’s effective autonomy from the Mainland. US efforts to penalize China’s bold action towards the former British colony may further spiral bilateral relations, while increased tensions over social issues could spill over into the global economy in the form of reciprocal punitive trade measures on both sides of the Pacific.
  • Biden supports international cooperation on key global security issues like nonproliferation and climate change, viewing these as potential areas of collaboration between the US and China. Though positive engagement between the two nations could open doors for improved relations in the future, the underlying multilateral power struggle between Washington and Beijing over global influence could limit the possibility for warmer relations within the current chilly climate.
  • Under Biden, America would likely seek to repair relations with longstanding allies that share common concerns over Chinese trade practices. While Trump has sought to bargain with China on intellectual property, trade deficit, and security issues independently, Biden may seek to leverage the shared grievances held by many of China’s trade partners within international bodies like the WTO or WIPO to gain more traction in negotiations by having multiple bargaining chips.

Looking Forward

Both candidates recognize the defining role that US-China relations will play in shaping the future of both nations. While Trump and Biden have both spoken on economic protectionism for domestic companies, Biden seemingly favors engagement through discourse while Trump appears committed to a hardline approach – at least for the moment. Regardless, with both candidates standing on shaky ground without a grand China strategy, the future US president-elect will need to first unite a severely fractured political system before making meaningful long-term progress on US-China relations.

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