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Why 2020 election may show there's not much difference between Trump, Biden on China policy

Both the campaigns of President Donald Trump, and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, have portrayed the other as fundamentally weak on China.

Yet in the midst of tough bilateral trade talks and the COVID-19 crisis that have pushed Sino-American relations to their lowest point in decades, observers suggest the sound and fury of both candidates actually signifies very little.

“There's not an awful lot of difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on trade with China,” Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council in Foreign Relations (CFR), told Yahoo Finance in an interview recently.

The convergence between the two parties comes down to “a real shift on China in the last four years” among Democrats, he added. As recently as the Obama administration, Democrats often focused on partnering with China, with Obama himself often talking of a “pivot to Asia.”

That’s now changed, Alden said. “I think [Democrats] believe China's going to be an ongoing challenge, not just on trade but on other issues,” he added.

Republicans and the president are constantly talking about cutting China out of medical supply chains. GOP Senator Tom Cotton is a big proponent of the idea and he has a prime Thursday night speaking slot this week.

Yet Biden has also tackled the subject in prime time. During his acceptance speech, the Democratic nominee spoke pointedly about how “we'll make the medical supplies and protective equipment our country needs” so that “we will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries in order to protect our own people.”

Who might ‘bring our allies along’

TOPSHOT - Former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accepts the Democratic Party nomination for US president during the last day of the Democratic National Convention, being held virtually amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware on August 20, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accepts the Democratic Party nomination for president during the last day of the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Delaware. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

The Democratic argument for how they’ll be different usually comes down tactics, not goals. Diplomatic skills have been cited repeatedly as to why a President Biden would be more effective in taking on China.

Austan Goolsbee, an influential Biden advisor and former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, told Yahoo Finance last week that “one major difference” between Biden and Trump is that the former Vice President would “bring our allies along” — specifically to confront things like intellectual property theft.

The Trump administration has often talked about the issue, but hasn’t been able to directly address it in negotiations so far.

Representative Tom Malinowski, another Democratic voice on the issue, said recently that he agreed with Trump in principle that “we needed to take on the Chinese on trade,” but added that coordinated alliances are what will make sanctions or tariffs actually stick.

U.S. President Donald Trump stands Chinese Vice Premier Liu He after signing "phase one" of the U.S.-China trade agreement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque?
President Trump stands Chinese Vice Premier Liu He after signing "phase one" of the U.S.-China trade agreement in January. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Trump has taken a hard rhetorical line on China throughout his presidency, arguing on several occasions that he was the only one who could stand up to Beijing. But in recent months, the coronavirus pandemic that originated within Chinese borders has badly soured the bilateral relationship, just as “phase 2” negotiations were set to begin.

“I don’t want to talk to China right now, Trump said recently.

The U.S. and China had been scheduled to meet to review the progress of the Phase 1 trade deal. The meeting was initially scheduled for August 15 but has been delayed, citing scheduling conflicts. Now, it’s unclear when it will happen.

At the end of the day, “both [Biden and Trump] think China's been cheating, both think China has been stealing U.S. intellectual property, both want to continue a very kind of strong arm approach towards China” said CFR’s Alden.

‘Collateral damage in trade wars’

The focus for both parties between now and election day will be appealing to voters who have felt the effects of the recent trade disputes.

Former President Bill Clinton, during his convention speech, talked about Biden being “better for farmers tired of being collateral damage in trade wars.”

Yet the president, tacitly acknowledging his vulnerability on the issue, often talks about the aid he has secured for farmers amid widespread reports about their pain during the trade war.

Come 2021, the decisions facing either a Biden or Trump administration may be dictated more by the realities of the global economy rather than by campaign rhetoric.

Penny Pritzker, the former Commerce Secretary and current Biden Adviser, acknowledged this to Yahoo Finance recently.

Standing up to China in the years ahead is "tricky business" that will require a balance she said because “we have to recognize that we live in a globalized economy and we cannot just pull up the bridges around the United States,” she added.

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, D.C.

Read more:

‘It's three strikes and you're out’: Lawmakers push ahead on bill to delist Chinese companies

Fact or fiction? Assessing Team Trump’s claims about Biden and China

‘I actually would be tougher’: A Democrat's plan for changing the relationship with China after Trump

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