Then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden gave a speech in China on Aug. 21, 2011, to announce that 30 years of favorable trade, economic and other policies toward China were not enough.
“In order to cement this robust partnership, we have to go beyond close ties between Washington and Beijing, … go beyond it to include all levels of government, go beyond it to include classrooms and laboratories, athletic fields and boardrooms,” Mr. Biden said in a speech at Sichuan University.
The remarks reflect policies in support of expanding U.S. engagement with China advocated by Mr. Biden for more than 25 years, policies that reached their zenith during his vice presidency in the Obama administration.
But now as the Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Biden has changed course and is trying to outflank President Trump on China, accusing his Republican rival of being weak on Beijing. The new, harder-line Mr. Biden has criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug” and promised new economic sanctions on Beijing if he is elected.
Many of the past U.S. policies toward China of both Democratic and Republican administrations have been systematically reversed during the past four years.
The rationale behind Mr. Trump’s new approach, including tariffs and sanctions, was set out in a 2017 White House report decrying what it called Chinese “economic aggression,” including theft of American technology estimated at a staggering $600 billion annually.
Mr. Biden has long advocated more conciliatory policies toward China during his decades in government, first in Congress and later in the White House.
However, in a move aimed at winning votes from Mr. Trump’s populist supporters who favor the president’s get-tough economic policies, Mr. Biden recently promised in a campaign speech to impose sanctions on China for mistreating American citizens and companies.
Mr. Biden also accused the Trump administration of mishandling the U.S. response to the pandemic, insisting he would have forced Beijing to allow international inspectors to investigate the outbreak first reported inside China.
However, as Mr. Trump has noted frequently, Mr. Biden also criticized the president for blocking travelers from China shortly after the outbreak became known. Days after the late January travel ban was imposed, Mr. Biden tweeted on Feb. 1: “We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia and fear-mongering.”
In a further sign of Mr. Biden’s conflicting signals for future China policies, in August he called for ending hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. tariffs on China imposed by Mr. Trump in a bid to change China’s trade practices. But the same day, a Biden aide walked back the comment, asserting that Mr. Biden as president would merely re-evaluate the tariffs instead.
The former vice president was a major proponent of the decadeslong policy arguing that increased U.S. trade and engagement would lead to a more moderate, non-threatening China.
A House Republican report made public recently concluded the engagement approach instead produced a more threatening regime, still dominated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“Leniency and accommodation of the CCP and its oppressive agenda are no longer an option,” the report concluded.
Mr. Biden and his relatives have come under fire in a recent Senate report that suggested the vice president helped his son win lucrative business deals in China, something the Bidens have denied.
The report by the Senate Homeland Security Committee noted Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, traveled to China aboard Air Force 2 in December 2013 and worked on securing a number of financial deals with the Chinese.
“There exists a vast web of corporate connections and financial transactions between and among the Biden family and Chinese nationals,” the report said.
Embracing past policies
Despite recent statements by former aides and advisers signaling the need for a new, tougher approach to China, Mr. Biden is broadly expected to restore past policies that critics have labeled as appeasement.
Biden adviser and former State Department official Kurt Campbell promises a tougher approach.
“If elected president, the watchword of the Biden administration towards China will be a sustained, across-the-board competition — in the security sphere, in human rights, on trade and investment, and for global influence,” Mr. Campbell said. “Biden will engage allies, invest in cutting-edge technologies, rebuild global institutions and generally try to steady the ship of state when it comes to implementing a durable, bipartisan Asia strategy.”
John Tkacik, a former State Department China policymaker, said, “From the very beginning, the former vice president signaled he’d seek to accommodate China rather than confront it.”
“Whether during the Obama-Biden administration or afterwards, neither the former vice president nor his closest foreign policy advisers have ever appreciated the magnitude of China’s economic, military or technological power,” he said.
Mr. Tkacik said the 2011 speech in Chengdu, China, reflected Mr. Biden’s desire to welcome Chinese involvement in every corner of the American economy.
“His interactions with China’s leaders were always marked by warmth, trust and a giving nature,” Mr. Tkacik said. “I don’t sense that he’s lost any of his personal fondness for China and its leaders.”
The Biden campaign has sought to delicately navigate around the topic of China since the beginning of the campaign.
In May 2019, Mr. Biden received bipartisan criticism for his comments at an Iowa campaign rally on China: “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Accusations of China’s cheating on trade, its cyber espionage programs and intellectual property theft were dismissed by Mr. Biden. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!” he remarked.
Campaign aides immediately sought to walk back the comment, telling reporters that the former vice president’s point was that whatever challenges the United States faces, including the threat from a rising China, they pale in comparison to China’s internal structural and social challenges.
By the spring of 2020, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Mr. Biden switched gears and said the U.S. should be focused on winning the competition with China.
“To win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, the United States must sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices and reduce inequality,” he wrote.
Mr. Biden’s views on China until around 1995 were centrist. He recognized the problems posed by China’s arms proliferation and human rights abuses.
Those views turned sharply to the virtues of pro-China engagement when Mr. Biden brought on first Frank Januzzi as his senior Senate China adviser and later Ely Ratner. Both advisers were behind Mr. Biden’s decision to support granting China permanent normal trade status and allow Beijing to join the World Trade Organization.
Mr. Ratner joined the vice president’s staff as a national security adviser specializing in China, and was later replaced as the China adviser by the more partisan Democrat Jeffrey Prescott.
Mr. Prescott and Mr. Ratner recently wrote an opinion article arguing that it is not Mr. Biden who is weak on China but Mr. Trump. The two former advisers contended that the benefits of Mr. Trump’s “Phase 1” trade deal with China were illusory.
“We both saw first-hand Vice President Biden repeatedly stand up to China’s leaders and win,” they stated. “He defended America’s right to fly over the East China Sea when Beijing illegally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone.”
But Mr. Prescott and Mr. Ratner failed to address the widespread criticism that inaction by the Obama administration in 2012 gave a green light to Beijing to begin building what would eventually become island military bases in the disputed South China Sea.
U.S. military leaders have said new anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles deployed on the artificial Chinese islands have given Beijing de facto control of the strategic waterway used for up to $5 trillion annual in trade.
The Obama-Biden administration refused to take sides in the South China Sea island dispute, insisting on maintaining neutrality.
After China dispatched more than a hundred vessels to Scarborough Shoal, a small outcropping in the Spratly islands claimed by Philippines, Manila asked the Obama administration to invoke the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty. Mr. Obama refused, a decision that was followed by a large-scale buildup of islands by China and eventual militarization.
The Trump administration has taken a very different approach: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year announced in Manila that the United States would defend the Philippines’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
The Trump administration also announced that China’s claims to disputed islands in the sea are illegal under international law after an international arbitration panel ruled against China in 2016.
Mr. Trump’s approach has clearly shifted the terms of the debate in the U.S. Former State Department China official, Kurt Campbell, now a Biden campaign adviser, has acknowledged that “there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices.”
Mr. Biden’s advisors argue he can do a better job working with allies to restrain China’s worst policies.
Writing in the online PennLive news website, Mr. Prescott and Mr. Ratner promised that once in the White House, Mr. Biden “will rally the free world and mobilize half the world’s economy to hold Beijing to account for its trade abuses.”
“Where Trump has failed, Joe Biden who will position the United States to outcompete China for decades to come,” they said in the Sept. 19 article.
The final weeks of the Biden campaign has seen an increased emphasis on cooperating with China as much as confronting Beijing, on issues such as climate change, nuclear disarmament and human rights.
“My own worry is that a Biden administration would give each of our allies an individual veto over China policy as a cover for Biden’s traditional inclination to seek accommodation with China and its expanding and aggressive stance globally across the board,” Mr. Tkacik said.
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