Joe Biden is getting tougher on China. Whether voters think it's tough enough could shape the direction of the 2020 race.
The former vice president, leading early polling for the Democratic presidential nomination, appeared to pivot Wednesday from a dismissive attitude he’d staked out just last month to a more confrontational posture toward the rising superpower.
But some China hawks argue Biden’s hardened stance still reads as accommodating compared to President Trump’s tariff-backed bid to force structural economic changes in China. That creates a contrast for blue-collar voters in Midwestern states that Biden has said he is uniquely positioned to recapture.
Biden, in a speech in Ottumwa, Iowa, blasted Trump’s trade war as damaging American farmers and autoworkers while neglecting the investments at home necessary to keep pace with China’s advancements in tech and infrastructure. “We need to get tough with China. They are a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat,” Biden said. (Read his remarks as prepared for delivery here.)
The conclusion marked an apparent departure from Biden’s assessment of the Chinese threat in another Iowa speech on May 1. Then, he suggested that the U.S. does not need to worry about China as a geopolitical competitor. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” Biden said at the time. “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not competition for us.”
Now, the former vice president says, to counter China’s rise, the U.S. needs to plow money into research, workforce development and infrastructure; work with allies to police Chinese trading abuses; and “tighten up our defenses so that American companies don't have to keep giving away technology to China, or having it stolen.”
Rob Atkinson, who served during the Obama administration on the National Innovation and Competitiveness Strategy Advisory Board, said Biden is “clearly backtracking.”
“I think he knows his initial comments about China were not well received and were not going to play well in the battleground states, the heartland, so he had to change the narrative,” Atkinson said.
But he added that he was struck that Biden didn’t call out Chinese mercantilism. “He’s saying China is a threat, but the response should be domestic policies only, and he appears to criticize aggressive trade policies going after China. If he stays with that and is the nominee, that’s going to be the dividing line.”
Ely Ratner, Biden’s former deputy national security adviser, said Wednesday’s speech didn’t represent an about-face. “I think the vice president has been consistent on this issue, and at the root of those earlier comments was what we heard today, which is an undying faith in the American people and faith in what makes America great,” Ratner said. “Having worked for him and heard him speak thousands of times, what I hear him saying is, given a level playing field, we can out-compete China.”
And he said Trump’s approach may look tough but is effectively a dead end. “Trump is not putting forward a competitive strategy with China,” he said. “He’s confrontational without being competitive.”
During the 2016 campaign, Trump broke from decades of Republican free-trade orthodoxy, effectively outflanking Hillary Clinton to the left on the issue by embracing a protectionist program. Since then, the tariffs he has imposed on key trading partners, and the retaliation from the countries facing them, have pinched farmers and autoworkers in the very Midwestern states that helped deliver him the White House.
And Quinnipiac polling last month revealed Trump’s trade policies are underwater with voters in those Rust Belt battlegrounds: The survey of voters in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin found 41 percent of respondents approve of his approach to trade, while 56 percent disapprove.
Pointing to those results, the New York Times’s Neil Irwin seemed to anticipate Biden’s tack when he wrote last week, “You can imagine a trade pitch from the 2020 Democratic nominee that goes something like this: ‘I’ll work with allies to keep pressure on China over its unfair practices — but not with open-ended tariffs on thousands of goods that are a tax on American consumers and invite retaliation against American farmers. I won’t use tariffs against countries that are our close partners. And I’ll use trade policy to try to boost well-being for American workers, rather than using it as a cudgel on unrelated issues.’”
Nevertheless, Trump on Wednesday appeared to relish the opportunity to put his record against Biden’s on the issue. “Joe Biden thought that China was not a competitor of ours. Joe Biden is a dummy,” he told reporters from the White House before leaving for his own trip to Iowa. “China is a major competitor, and right now China wants to make a deal very badly. It’s me right now that’s holding up the deal. And we're either going to do a great deal with China or we’re not going to do a deal at all… And China ate our country alive during Obama and Biden.”
Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that the top four vote-getters in the 2016 presidential primaries — Trump, Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who reversed himself to oppose fast-tracking trade deals — all ran, to varying degrees, as protectionists. “Notwithstanding that Biden realizes he needs to sound tough on China, he’s still outlining the Obama approach,” he said. "The big question here in evaluating Biden’s speech is: Do you think we were in a good place with respect to the Chinese in 2016?”
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“Kudlow also said that he remains hopeful that negotiations between Beijing and the U.S. can return to the position of apparent near alignment they enjoyed before talks appeared to stall out last month, amid disagreements between the two economic superpowers.”
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— Silicon Valley turns away from Chinese cash: “Since late last year, amid rising U.S.-China tensions, venture firms with China ties have been dialing back their U.S. investments, structuring deals in novel ways to avoid regulators or shutting their U.S. offices,” the Wall Street Journal’s Rolfe Winkler reports. “Some American venture firms are dumping their Chinese limited partners or walling them off with special structures. And some U.S. startups that have taken significant Chinese money are keeping the investments quiet or trying to push their Chinese investors out to avoid scrutiny.”
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“The decision shows how Washington’s effort to bar sales of technology to Chinese firms, including Huawei Technologies, is ensnaring non-American firms that are not obliged to follow U.S. law.”
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“The complaint comes as the U.S. Justice Department is close to making a final decision on the merger, which would reduce the number of nationwide wireless carriers to three from four.”
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"Rostin Behnam, who sits on the federal government’s five-member Commodities Futures Trading Commission, a powerful agency overseeing major financial markets including grain futures, oil trading and complex derivatives, said in an interview on Monday that the financial risks from climate change were comparable to those posed by the mortgage meltdown that triggered the 2008 financial crisis."
- The Cato Institute holds a summit on financial regulation, which will include FDIC chair Jelena McWilliams.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event on Hong Kong and trade.
- The Peterson Institute for International Economics holds an event featuring National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow on Thursday.
- The National Economists Club holds an event with the National Association for Manufacturers' Chad Moutray on Thursday.
Stephen Colbert on "Trump's Super Secret Agreement With Mexico":