2020 Election
President Donald Trump during a news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 9, 2017; Then Vice President Joe Biden during the opening ceremony of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue in Washington, May 9, 2011
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images; Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Updated: September 30, 2020 7:05 PM EDT | Originally published: September 29, 2020 8:00 PM EDT

As President, Donald Trump has cast China as a global villain: a malevolent actor that all but launched a worldwide pandemic on an unsuspecting world, robbed Americans of their jobs and stole U.S. business secrets. He has made the Chinese Communist Party a catch-all enemy that pulls puppet-like strings to make international organizations like the World Health Organization work at cross-purposes with Washington, all charges Beijing vigorously denies.

At the same time, Trump has presented himself to the world—and to U.S. voters—as the only person capable of pummeling Beijing into submission, chiefly through a landmark trade deal. Democrats, the President and his allies say, are the willing patsies who bow to Beijing, as when former Vice President-turned-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden sought closer ties to the growing superpower in his multiple visits there. “A rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large,” Biden said in 2011 after returning to the U.S. from one such trip.

China got only a glancing mention in Tuesday night’s first Presidential debate, with Trump saying the virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans “is China’s fault.” Biden has been buoyed by an August Fox News poll that shows more Americans trust him over Trump to handle China, perhaps in reaction to Trump’s swings between painting China as an existential threat to the U.S. and effusive praise toward Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

But many Trump supporters, if not most Americans, have become accustomed to Trump’s praise of strongmen in public, which in this case has given way to a barrage of insults, slamming Xi for letting the “Wuhan virus” spread. And Trump’s arguments that the Obama Administration was fooled by China could be persuasive if they make it to a future debate stage, says Michael Green, an Asia specialist from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Trump Administration’s line,” says Green, a former Bush official who has backed Biden, “is that everybody was duped by China.” Green says that is “ridiculous and wrong…but it’s a pretty easy line to use in a debate.”

Sure enough, Trump’s debate one-liner was, “China ate your lunch, Joe.”

Biden’s riposte highlighted that the U.S. trade deficit with China has only grown since Trump signed a trade deal with China in January. “He talks about the art of the deal, China has made — perfected the art of the steal,” he said. But it will be tricky for Biden to counter these charges in clear terms to the American people, if asked and actually given an opportunity to answer in one of the next two debates. During his early years as Vice President, Washington and key allies like the U.K. were still hopeful of working with China, guardedly optimistic that Chinese Communist Party leaders could be carrot-pulled into more free-market, human-rights and democracy-oriented behavior.

The last year has seen China double down in a different direction. Its crackdown on Hong Kong demonstrators culminated in enacting a National Security Law on the region, decades ahead of when the city’s semi-autonomous status is meant to end. China has also continued its crackdown on Muslim Uighurs, with hundreds of thousands reportedly sent to re-education camps.

The Trump Administration has accused Chinese leaders of being slow to tell the world how easily COVID-19 was spreading from person to person, and slow to admit a WHO team trying to investigate the outbreak. The Administration criticized China for releasing a DNA map of the virus without also sharing actual physical samples, which could help determine whether it jumped from animals or originated in a Chinese weapons lab, a popular but unsubstantiated theory among some in the GOP that is ridiculed by Chinese officials.

The Trump Administration has pursued a go-it-alone policy of using economic pain to bring Beijing to the negotiating table, aiming to check unfair trading practices and China’s aggressive militarization in the South China Sea. The Administration has slapped hundreds of billions of tariffs on Chinese goods, and imposed sanctions against alleged Chinese hackers accused of stealing U.S. intellectual property. The U.S. has also sanctioned Chinese officials who have cracked down on Hong Kong and the country’s Muslim Uighur minority.

The tough talk led to the January signing of the first phase of a trade deal, which keeps U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods largely intact, with the threat of more if China doesn’t follow through, and requires Beijing to buy upwards of $200 million in U.S. goods and services over the next two years. As of August, China has only bought $56.1 billion in U.S. goods, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. With Trump skewering Beijing verbally at every opportunity, it doesn’t appear to be working to step up spending, as Biden referenced in Tuesday’s debate.

Meanwhile, China’s global exports rose this summer, mainly because of its dominance of personal protective equipment manufacturing and work-from-home technology, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, while the U.S. trade deficit with China has grown. The U.S.-China trade war had already cost the U.S. 300,000 jobs since it started in early 2018, according to Moody Analytics, even before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the U.S. job market.

Biden’s own approach to China, as outlined in his public comments so far, sounds like a Trump-lite trade policy with a side of wishful thinking that Beijing can still be coaxed back to better behavior by a concerted scolding by Washington and its allies. He told the Council on Foreign Relations he would double down on Trump’s sanctions over the Hong Kong security law and its detention of up to a million minority Uighurs, but he told NPR that he would lift tariffs on Chinese imports and work through international trade bodies like the World Trade Organization to bring Beijing to heel.

Biden claims a key tool to counter China would be to super-charge those measures in cooperation with allies, in part by renegotiating the Trump-abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, an acronym that by itself can cause eyes to glaze, to band Pacific economies against Beijing. As Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge.”

Explaining that on stage on Tuesday, if he’d had the chance, would have been a wonky turn likely lost on any popular audience, who may not remember that it was combined allied economic action against Iran that brought it to the negotiating table for the Iran nuclear deal, an argument that would draw scorn from most Republicans.

Trump, for his part, will likely argue that if a tougher tack had been taken sooner, it might have clipped Beijing’s wings—though some current and former U.S. military and intelligence officers will tell you China was always heading this way, citing hawkish books like The Hundred-Year Marathon, which relies on Chinese documents and defectors to claim, controversially, that China intends to replace the U.S. as a global superpower by 2049.

Trump did use Tuesday’s debate to launch several broadsides on Biden’s son Hunter, claiming he made “billions” on an investment deal with the Bank of China, less than two weeks after flying there on his father’s plane in 2013, a charge that multiple fact-checks have found false. Hunter Biden’s spokesperson George Mesires tells TIME that he has “never made any money” from BHR Partners, the company he founded that struck the deal, “either from his former role as a director, or on account of his equity investment, which he is actively seeking to divest.”

Then and Now

When Biden served as Vice President, he helped launch Obama’s 2009 “U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.” At the time, it seemed that Washington and Beijing could work together toward common good in the service of mutual interests. Those early efforts arguably produced tangible results, as when both countries signed up to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, together representing 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. “We are moving the world significantly towards the goal we have set,” Obama said of the nations’ cooperation. China also “tightened its controls on weapons sold to Iran” in response to U.S. pressure, according to a Brookings Institution review, and the countries worked together to keep North Korea in check.

“There was very broad bipartisan support for a strategy towards China… that mixed engagement with China, and counterbalancing China by keeping our defenses strong, pushing on human rights, and especially working with allies, like Japan, and Australia,” says Green, the former Bush NSC official.

The mood soured, however, by the second Obama/Biden term, with the Obama Administration decrying thousands of cyberattacks a day on the U.S. government by Chinese military hackers, and later arresting a Chinese national for the theft of millions of government employees’ personal records from the Office of Personnel Management, leading to a bilateral anti-hacking pact that the Trump Administration later accused the Chinese of violating.

Obama and Biden also negotiated the TPP—which Trump swiftly pulled out of after his inauguration in 2017—to gather together 12 regional Pacific economies, representing 40% of the world’s trade, into a single trading market to offset China’s economic bullying. And Obama’s military challenged China’s construction of an artificial island and military base in the South China Sea with its own “presence patrols” of U.S. Naval vessels steaming through sea channels in international waters that China was trying to claim for its own.

All of the Obama Administration’s efforts were eventually swallowed up and erased, like the wakes of those U.S. Naval ships, in part by Trump’s TPP departure, but mostly by the steady waves of a strategically planned and clinically executed Chinese campaign to widen its economic influence, build its military might, and become a diplomatic superpower that cannot be ignored on any major international issue.

The U.S. public hasn’t paid much heed to China’s long game, but the COVID-19 crisis has caused more Americans to see China negatively, according to a Pew Research Service poll released in July. It’s against that backdrop that Biden may at some point have to explain to information-overwhelmed Americans why he once entertained the notion that China’s Communist Party could be reasoned with, and how his policies would produce a different result than the steadily increasing cold war between Beijing and Washington.

China-focused political economist Derek Scissors, of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, believes both candidates are weak on China. He says the first phase of the President’s trade deal is a “failure,” with U.S. exports to China “far behind schedule,” U.S. portfolio investment in China soaring, Beijing’s hack-and-grab theft of U.S. intellectual property continuing, and Trump’s sanctions are having little effect on Chinese tech companies’ predatory behavior.

On the other hand, Biden’s China record is one of “wishful thinking,” Scissors says, mostly focused on global climate change initiatives. “The Obama Administration was paralyzed by hope for meaningful Chinese cooperation, instead getting an increasingly nasty dictatorship,” he says. “Biden’s move away from that approach is unconvincing so far.”

Retired Amb. Joseph DeTrani, former CIA director of East Asia Operations, believes both candidates behaved appropriately for the China they faced at the time. In Biden’s engagement with China as a Senator during the 1980s and 1990s “bilateral relations were solid,” he says, so cooperative moves like championing Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization were appropriate. When tensions later rose, the Obama Administration announced its “pivot” to East Asia, concerned about China’s behavior in the South and East China Seas and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which ostensibly aimed to improve China’s physical access to markets by building roads, bridges and ports globally, but instead often trapped countries in debt-ridden deals that forced them to forfeit ownership of the projects to the Chinese.

DeTrani says Trump can argue that he, rather than his predecessors, acted against Beijing’s predatory trade practices, including “a very unfavorable historical trade imbalance with China, something previous administrations ignored.” He points out that Trump’s position hardened when it became clear China hadn’t shared data on the pandemic “in a timely way,” and with its crackdown on Hong Kong, the proliferation of Uighur reeducation camps and other human rights abuses.

With China’s military growing, already outpacing the U.S. Navy, and its still-expanding economy keeping it on track to eclipse U.S. power in the next decade, according to the Australia-based Lowy Institute, the next U.S. president will be facing a formidable adversary that no recent American leader has managed to check.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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