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How Biden can beat Trump on China

In a story first reported by Axios, the Trump campaign revealed plans to make Joe Biden’s purportedly “soft” posture towards China a central part of its 2020 reelection message. The decision is based on internal polling data purporting to show growing public anger with China due to the coronavirus outbreak, a claim consistent with outside polling.

A preview of this new message can be seen in a campaign ad released days prior to the Axios story, which features a montage of clips showing Biden interacting with people of Chinese descent, including a toast of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and closes with the slogan “Biden: Dangerous for America.” The New York Times described the ad as “xenophobic.”

The Biden campaign’s response to the Axios story leaves the impression that it will counter this line of attack by, in part, running to Trump’s right on China. Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesperson, told Axios that Trump’s blundered response to the outbreak came “in no small part because he disregarded warnings from a multitude of U.S. experts and bought China’s spin about successful containment.”

“Who publicly urged him not to take China’s word on this?” Bates asked. “Joe Biden,” he said, adding, “Donald Trump highlighting China is like the owner of a propane depot saying ‘I can’t wait to play with fireworks.’”

At first glance, this seems to be a slam-dunk argument, and indeed one that Biden has already laid the groundwork for. Although Trump has been the most antagonistic president on China in modern history, there are several obvious, rhetorically-attractive ways in which Trump weakens the United States’ hand.

At home, Trump’s incompetence, corruption, and divisiveness all corrode America’s political institutions and democratic culture, critical tools in a competition with an authoritarian, one-party state. His economic agenda, which has prioritized tax cuts for the rich over improved access to health care, more affordable education, and investments in infrastructure, undermines the long-term vitality of American society, and leads us to fall behind China on technological matters like artificial intelligence and 5G.

Abroad, Trump’s kneejerk rejection of multilateralism and poor treatment of U.S. allies make it difficult to mobilize a coalition that can balance against China or extract meaningful concessions. (Biden has called China “the big winner” of the Phase 1 trade deal.)

Trump’s abdication of U.S. leadership in international institutions cedes the field to China, and his disinterest in human rights drains American soft power and allows China to get away with abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Biden can effectively and clearly articulate this overall point by noting the damning fact that intellectuals in China view Trump as “Beijing’s best asset.”

Despite the intuitive attractiveness of this approach, it could potentially be a misstep to pursue it. By embracing the ethic of competition, Biden legitimizes Trump’s broader argument, and allows him to set the terms of debate in language that he is ultimately far more comfortable operating in: nationalism. Biden is not adept enough to out-nationalist America’s foremost nationalist, and would only empower Trump to further inflame anti-Asian racism, something that has already led to a rise in hate crimes and discrimination.

Biden also has unique vulnerabilities that will hamstring this argument. The former Vice President will be constantly required to answer for the fact that Xi Jinping rose to power, and dramatically expanded China’s international influence, under his watch and while his son was sitting on a Chinese corporate board. Whereas President Obama, and thus Biden, accepted Xi at his word when he stood in the White House rose garden and promised not to militarize the South China Sea, Trump intuitively understood the need to respond with sternness and force, allowing him to claim that he alone has the grit required to hold China accountable for the coronavirus.

Biden will, of course, supplement any attacks from Trump’s right with an emphasis on the need to cooperate with China where the two countries share common interests, most obviously on infectious disease prevention and climate change. While nice in theory, in practice this provides Biden with little upside, insofar as Trump can easily frame it as representative of the same type of liberal wishful thinking that allowed the relationship to become so unbalanced in the first place, something Trump himself had to come in and clean up.

The inevitable attacks that will follow Biden’s calls for cooperation will also be effective because they will be, to some extent, accurate. The tragic reality is that little evidence can support the claim that Xi Jinping’s China is actually interested in cooperating with the United States, even where it may be in China’s apparent interest to do so. Dramatic political changes that have taken place under Xi have created a domestic political environment where, according to one Chinese scholar, defending China and pushing back against the United States “becomes a thing of political correctness” for Chinese policymakers and diplomats that will “win them greater career success domestically.”

This is supplemented by the emergence of a hawkish bipartisan consensus here at home, and especially the overzealous, conspiratorial hostility emanating from parts of the Republican Party, to further solidify the view in Beijing that it is in a zero-sum struggle with the United States, where the only way for it to protect its interests is to accumulate as much power as possible, and wield it where necessary. This is evident in China’s unabashed construction of a global propaganda network, use of underhanded tactics to cultivate influence in international institutions, and willingness to exert leverage over and punish states that oppose China’s interests. Although there are undoubtedly those in China who disagree with Xi’s direction, they have had little success limiting these excesses to date.

Yet, being realistic about the prospects for cooperation need not necessitate Biden’s embrace of competition. Biden should instead be characteristically frank with the American people: The United States can and should not hide from the fact that the two countries have fundamentally conflicting interests, portending a relationship likely to get far worse and go through a number of dangerous crises in the near-future.

Such an admission would free Biden to run on a message that will prove far more effectual, avoiding many of the pitfalls of running to Trump’s right while hedging with calls for cooperation: Donald Trump is the polar opposite of the type of leader who you want to manage such a volatile and precarious relationship. Trump has neither the the capacity to understand just how high the stakes with China are, nor the temperament and discretion required to deftly manage the relationship without allowing it to spiral out of control.

What the U.S.-China relationship needs most right now is not a warrior-president who relishes the fight, but rather a competent and tempered bureaucratic manager who can do the quiet, behind-the-scenes work required to build coalitions capable of bringing China to the negotiating table, and who does so not out of a zeal for crushing the new Evil Empire, but because it is necessary to create a stable world order. Through this line, any argument that Trump makes about Biden’s apparent weakness can be countered in a way that exposes and emphasizes the administration’s incompetence and strategic bankruptcy, without falling into the trap of trying to outmaneuver Trump in his own domain.

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