Agreement, for a change: Trump and Biden share distrust of China

WASHINGTON — This year’s presidential race has been dominated by two crises that have upended American lives — the coronavirus and the economic recession — plus vitriolic exchanges over which candidate is most unfit for public office.

But in the vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, voters were rewarded with a brief, almost civil exchange over the most important challenge in U.S. foreign policy: China.

The two running mates didn’t really disagree about policy. They argued, instead, over who was tougher on Beijing, President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden.

“The president’s trade war?” Harris asked. “You lost it. … Because of a so-called trade war with China, America lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs.” (That’s inaccurate; manufacturing fell briefly after Trump’s tariffs were imposed, but the estimate Harris cited was for all jobs, not just manufacturing.)

“Lost the trade war?” Pence retorted. “Joe Biden never fought it. Joe Biden has been a cheerleader for communist China.” (That was inaccurate too.)

Score the exchange as a draw.

Trump’s campaign has sought to paint Biden as soft on China, noting his history in the Senate and in the Obama White House of promoting political and economic engagement with Beijing.

A Trump campaign commercial shows Biden, then vice president, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the charge: “Biden stands up for China.”

Biden fired back with a mirror-image ad that showed Trump with Xi and an accusation: “Trump rolled over for the Chinese.”

It’s not surprising that Trump and Biden are battling over China. That’s what campaigns are for. What’s surprising is how much they agree.

Trump ran for president in 2016 as a braggadocious trade hawk, promising to slap tariffs on China and extract big trade concessions.

Once in office, he instead struck up a bromance with Xi. He called the autocrat “a great leader” and, according to former national security adviser John Bolton, asked the Chinese ruler to buy U.S. soybeans to help his re-election chances.

Then the coronavirus hit. After U.S. officials concluded that China concealed data on the pandemic, Trump imposed a partial ban on travel from China and blamed Beijing for the pandemic.

By then, Biden had already called Xi “a thug” and called for getting “tough on China.”

“If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property,” he wrote in February.

Biden’s tough talk didn’t hurt his presidential campaign. It also reflected a broader, more important shift by Democrats and establishment Republicans.

Since the 1970s, U.S. presidents have promoted cooperation with Beijing, hoping it would nudge the communist government to become more democratic and to open its fast-growing economy to U.S. companies.

Biden embraced that consensus as a senator and vice president.

But China’s economy never opened as much as Biden and other advocates of interdependence hoped.

U.S. concerns also focused on Beijing’s growing military might.

Ignoring U.S. warnings, China claimed disputed parts of the resource-rich South China Sea. It dredged runways and harbors and built military facilities on islands and shoals that none of the surrounding nations recognize as Chinese.

The differences are mostly on strategy and style.

Trump has acted unilaterally; Biden hopes to revive regional alliances to constrain China.

Biden would be tougher on human rights; Trump has shied away from criticizing Xi’s repressive measures against dissidents and the Uighur Muslim minority.

Biden would seek Chinese cooperation on climate change, a problem Trump has ignored.

Those differences guarantee that Washington’s newfound consensus on China will soon find its limits, no matter who is elected president. We have found, if not quite an enemy, a bipartisan adversary in China.

Doyle McManus is a syndicated columnist.