The Democratic presidential candidates did not hold back in their criticisms of President Trump at Thursday evening’s debate, calling him a “problem,” a man who sowed “hate and division” and the “most dangerous president in the history of this country.”
But even as the Democratic candidates drubbed their Republican rival, there were signs that they would continue the thrust of his signature foreign policy endeavor: the ongoing trade war with China.
For China’s political leaders, that may be a worrying sign that even if the combative Trump leaves office in 2021, their trade relationship with the United States has been irrevocably changed.
Most notably, while many criticized Trump’s handling of the trade war, none of the candidates would say they would move to quickly repeal the wide-ranging tariffs Trump has put in place on Chinese imports. Some suggested that they would keep the tariffs in place for their own trade negotiations.
Andrew Yang said he would not be “repealing the tariffs immediately.” Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would have a strategy that would “include the tariffs as leverage.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) did not dispute that she had supported steel tariffs, but said Trump’s tariffs were too broad and hurt allies as well.
Klobuchar and other candidates mostly took aim at the negative repercussions Trump’s tariffs were having on Americans. “He has put us in the middle of this trade war and he is treating our farmers and our workers like poker chips in one of his bankrupt casinos,” she said.
“He conducts trade policy by tweet, frankly born out of his fragile ego,” said Kamala D. Harris. “It has resulted in farmers in Iowa with soybeans rotting in bins, looking at bankruptcy.”
Joe Biden, a favorite in some polls who had already taken part in the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia while he was vice president between 2009 and 2017, said that it was either going to be the United States or China making policy in the future.
“The fact of the matter is, China — the problem isn’t the trade deficit, the problem is they’re stealing our intellectual property,” he said. “The problem is they’re violating the WTO [World Trade Organization]. They’re dumping steel on us. That’s a different issue than whether or not they’re dumping agricultural products on us.”
Julián Castro appeared the most eager to negotiate with Beijing.
“So when I become president, I would immediately begin to negotiate with China to ratchet down that trade war,” he said, but added that the United States needed to do more to pressure China on its human rights record.
“We have millions of Uighurs, for instance, in China that right now are being imprisoned and mistreated,” said Castro, who is currently trailing with less than 0.5 percent support according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Unlike other recent U.S. presidential elections, China looks likely to dominate the foreign policy debate ahead of the November 2020 vote. The Trump campaign has made its battle against China a key part of its platform, and China has already dominated the discussion of foreign policy in Democratic debates the way that terrorism did only a few years ago.
In a recent survey of candidates conducted by The Post, six candidates — including front-runners like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) — have said they would be open to maintaining heightened tariffs on China if elected.
Ten candidates did not give a clear response, including big hitters like Biden, Buttigieg and Harris. The four candidates who said they would not maintain tariffs have less 3.5 percent support in the most recent Post/ABC poll — combined.
Beijing may take some solace in the knowledge that, as a whole, Democratic voters appear to oppose heightened tariffs. But polling also shows that views of China have turned sharply negative over the past year, with Pew finding a new high of 60 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China.
China has weathered the trade war storm for more than a year now and though it has been bruising — and Trump’s stance erratic — Beijing has begun to get a grasp on how to handle Trump. But while a Democratic president may be a more predictable negotiator than Trump, Thursday’s debate suggested they may still drive a hard bargain.