Sen. Kamala Harris (Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock)
In debate, Harris signaled a sharper break with Trump administration over China

During last night’s vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Vice President Mike Pence predictably touted the Trump administration’s confrontational approach toward China on issues related to trade and the coronavirus pandemic. Senator Kamala Harris’s remarks on China, meanwhile, represented a positive shift in the way Democrats are approaching strategy toward China, though they were framed in unduly partisan terms. 

In response to a question about the nature of the U.S. relationship with China, Vice President Pence complained that China would not let U.S. experts into China early in the pandemic. Ironically, his comment obscured a more damning reality: Although the Chinese government did mismanage the early outbreak, in part due to its reflex for secrecy and censorship, the Trump administration had actually pulled U.S. health experts out of China as part of its self-defeating drive to “decouple” the United States and China. 

Responding to Pence’s comments, Senator Harris highlighted the fact that the United States had a team of experts on the ground in China to monitor disease outbreaks that had been withdrawn by the Trump administration. She’s right: Upon coming into office, the administration reduced the number of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health staff in China and shut down the National Science Foundation office in Beijing. As Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and Georgetown University professor has explained, “five years earlier, CDC and NIH officials would have been on the ground in Wuhan.”

The Trump administration’s knee-jerk anti-China position undid critical bilateral public health ties that had been painstakingly built by past U.S. administrations precisely in order to increase China’s transparency during disease outbreaks and help China to better prevent and manage those outbreaks.

This argument represents a notable and welcome shift in the Biden campaign’s rhetoric, after a Biden ad earlier this year tried to out-hawk Trump on China by accusing Trump of “roll[ing] over for the Chinese” amidst the pandemic. However, while Harris credited the Obama-Biden administration for its public health presence in China, she neglected to acknowledge the transpartisan nature of this past pragmatic approach to China: These ties were first established during the Bush administration as a response to the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak.

In another segment, Harris also attacked the U.S.-China trade war, highlighting its direct harm to American farmers and manufacturers, and citing the estimate from Moody’s Corporation that it has cost the U.S. economy at least 300,000 jobs. She also noted that the tariffs on Chinese goods have raised the cost of Americans’ consumer goods. While these comments are in line with Democratic critiques of the Trump trade war, it marks a shift from the more protectionist stance toward China commonly espoused by party candidates in previous elections. 

In response to Harris’ criticisms, Pence defended the current administration’s record on trade by noting that before Trump took office, “half of our international trade deficit was with China alone.” He failed to note that the U.S. trade deficit with China in 2019 was almost precisely the same as in 2016, and it was even larger in 2017 and 2018. In fact, the only reason China’s share of the overall U.S. trade deficit has declined is because the overall trade deficit is actually $120 billion larger than when President Trump came into office, a 16 percent increase from 2016.

This outcome of the trade war was predictable. Tariffs on China push outsourcing and offshoring to other countries where wages are cheaper, while making American consumer goods more expensive and inviting retaliatory tariffs from China on U.S. exports made by American companies and workers. A more effective approach would be to pursue more comprehensive WTO reform and regional trade agreements with high quality labor and environmental standards, like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, that make it harder for any individual country to avoid playing by the same rules.

At the same time, better trade agreements alone are not enough to protect American workers. Mounting economic research finds that freer trade, even while benefiting the U.S. economy overall, has been one contributor to increased income inequality in the United States. In reflection of this reality, the U.S. government must do more to reinvest the economic gains from trade in infrastructure, healthcare, and education. This will ensure that the benefits of trade do not accrue only to corporations and the wealthiest Americans, but to average American workers and families. Such investments will make Americans safer, healthier, and more competitive, while also creating more jobs in the construction, healthcare, and education sectors. They will also strengthen popular support for free trade.

In fact, the Covid-19 outbreak and the ongoing trade war vividly illustrate why a cold war-like strategy toward China will only harm Americans. The greatest challenges to American security are transnational (pandemics and climate change) and domestic (political dysfunction and crumbling infrastructure)–not military competition or ideological rivalry with foreign countries. Transnational challenges cannot be met without pragmatic, constructive relations between the United States and China. And domestic challenges cannot be tackled if U.S. discretionary spending is being diverted into arms racing with Beijing.

Senator Harris signaled last night that a future Biden-Harris administration would acknowledge the former reality and adopt a more constructive approach toward trade and public health relations with China. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not Democrats will be able to resist the bipartisan temptation to double down on a destabilizing strategy of military dominance in Asia. 

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