"Tough on China": how Trump and Biden differ over Beijing

The US president's past relationship with his Chinese counterpart could come back to bite him.

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As the pandemic has spread around the world this year, a new rhetoric about being “tough” on China has unfurled throughout the political conversation in the United States.

On 23 July the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, delivered a speech on China at the Richard Nixon library effectively declaring the era of engagement over. “If we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo’s speech followed the US administration’s decision to close China’s consulate in Houston after US officials alleged it was part of a Chinese espionage effort. Donald Trump has also revived his reference to Covid-19 as the “China Virus” (over the objections of those who feel the phrase makes Asians and Asian-Americans in the US less safe), and his government is reportedly considering barring Chinese Communist Party members and their families from travelling to the US.

But if Trump wants to be the tough-on-China candidate in the upcoming US election, he will face both competition from the presumptive Democratic nominee, the former vice president Joe Biden, and from the ghostly contradictions of his own track record.

Until recently, Trump sang a different tune towards his Chinese counterpart. In the spring of 2017, when Trump met Xi Jinping, at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club, the two shared “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen”. This was according to Trump, who also said that the pair had “great chemistry”.

In 2019, if one believes what the former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his book, The Room Where It Happened, Trump thought that China’s detention of Uighurs in camps in Xinjiang was “exactly the right thing to do”. Furthermore, this spring Trump himself admitted that the treatment of the Uighur population was not of primary concern, saying that he avoided placing sanctions on China over the issue because the two countries were in the “middle of a trade deal”.

Also in 2019, Trump tweeted on the Hong Kong protests: “I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.’ I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”

As recently as this winter, Trump praised China 15 times for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

For Rui Zhong, a programme associate for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, Trump’s stance towards China since the pandemic began is primarily a matter of economic and political expediency. “Trump’s toughness on China depends on two things: timing and actors involved,” she wrote in an email.

See also: Ivo Dawnay on how Joe Biden triumphed over Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday

Trump takes one position when there are tantalising prospects of trade deals and potential benefits to businesses, she wrote. But when the economy is doing poorly and business relations are strained, “then there are fewer losses to cut in imposing additional sanctions, closing down diplomatic channels, and rallying around dissidents – even dissidents that might be an afterthought in better times”, Zhong wrote, pointing to Hong Kong in particular.

Times are currently less good, and it is “especially convenient to blame an existent rival”, concurred Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yet if Trump wants to look tough on China, he is entering a crowded field. According to Rapp-Hopper, there is now a bipartisan consensus that the US and China are in a great power rivalry (though also “very little consensus on what that means”).

That consensus includes former Biden. When Barack Obama served as president, the administration stressed cooperation with China over the Pacific Ocean. But the world has changed in many ways since Obama left office, and US-China relations is one such way.

“Biden’s foreign policy proposals combine Trump’s confrontational language with some of the tools he worked on during the Obama administration and some of the international networks he built as [vice president] and as a senator,” Zhong wrote. “He’s had inroads with foreign policy thinkers that advocate for more resilience with allies in the east Asia region.”

Rapp-Hooper agreed that Biden’s vow to work multilaterally, rejoining agreements and institutions, distinguishes his approach from Trump’s. A Biden administration could be expected to “really emphasise the role of American allies in any approach in Europe and Asia — which it's hard to argue the Trump administration has done”, she said.

“The notion that we could possibly pursue a foreign policy that could dominate every space is product of a bygone era,” Rapp-Hooper said, which means that, if the US is to ensure that the rules of the international game are fair – on the internet, for example, or in international bodies – it cannot work alone.

Though the American tack will change depending on who is elected in November, Zhong suggests that Beijing’s will be largely the same: building up foreign policy and security resources, and making sure that the country's economic system is “weatherproof”.

“[China’s] negotiation tactics will differ and look at Trump’s personality politics vs a systemic view of a Biden presidency,” Zhong wrote, “but the core goals will be similar.”

See also: Isabel Hilton on the end of the "golden decade" in UK-China relations

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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