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The China Policy Gap Between Biden and Trump Is Bigger Than You Think

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The China Policy Gap Between Biden and Trump Is Bigger Than You Think

Rhetorically, the two presidential candidates hit many of the same notes. But in practice they have approached competition with China very differently.

The China Policy Gap Between Biden and Trump Is Bigger Than You Think

A composite image of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, based on photos by Gage Skidmore and Shealah Craighead.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ krassotkin

While many recoil at the prospect of a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Super Tuesday’s outcome sealed Nikki Haley’s failed bid to challenge the former Republican president. With the second Biden-Trump face-off going down to the wire this November, the two presidential candidates are competing to raise the stakes against China. Thus, some argue that regardless of who wins, the United States’ overall China policy may remain largely unaffected

In rhetorical terms, that might hold true. However, in practice, the gap between their approaches to China may be more significant than anticipated.

With a political career spanning six decades, Biden has demonstrated his adeptness balancing his China policy, tailoring his message for different audiences. Domestically, the initial phase of his presidency was enveloped in a widespread anti-China sentiment in the United States, amid speculations about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Against that backdrop, despite undoing many of Trump’s policies, Biden opted to retain the most high-profile piece: his predecessor’s tariffs on Chinese imports. As his presidency progressed, Biden took meticulous steps to gradually escalate the crackdown on Beijing’s tech development without inciting significant backlash from concerned Americans. 

Throughout his tenure, Biden strategically executed his China policy to address the prevailing anti-China sentiment among the domestic audience while minimizing the political costs incurred. This approach not only thwarted attempts by his political rivals to portray him as soft on China, but also shielded him from much of the criticism that Trump faced regarding his dealings with the Asian powerhouse.

On the international stage, Biden has positioned himself as a coordinator among traditional allies of the United States who is also willing to cooperate with China, a stark departure from Trump’s isolationist stance. On the one hand, Biden has aligned allies in the Indo-Pacific and globally to counter Chinese military presence and aggression in the South China Sea, reaffirming unwavering U.S. leadership in the face of China’s assertiveness. On the other hand, he has pursued active engagement with China, facilitating high-level dialogues to deescalate tensions between the two nations. This includes meetings between himself and Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite occasional challenges such as the Chinese surveillance balloon that passed over the U.S. mainland in early 2023. 

Although Biden has achieved some success in handling China, it is important to recognize flaws in his broader foreign policy, particularly exemplified by two significant setbacks in the Middle East that have provided new geopolitical opportunities for China. First, the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan severely undermined the credibility of the United States’ military commitments, especially in deterring adversaries like China. Second, the Biden administration has struggled to offer a concrete resolution to the prolonged Israel-Hamas conflict. The U.S. veto against an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza has further tarnished the country’s leadership image in the Global South, inadvertently strengthening China’s narrative as a proactive peacekeeper through its shuttle diplomacy efforts.

These foreign policy mishaps may reinforce stereotypes regarding the Republicans’ perceived advantage in foreign policy compared to the Democrats, potentially playing out in the GOP’s favor. To at least partially mitigate the negative impact of these setbacks, which can easily provoke domestic backlash in today’s United States and raise suspicion from the international community, it is politically prudent for the Biden administration to focus on a less controversial target – China. This strategy is exemplified in Biden’s narrative of China-U.S. relations as a competition, a theme that was reemphasized in the 2024 State of the Union address.

Nevertheless, Trump does not share Biden’s consideration in balancing domestic and international aspects of foreign policy. Operating under the “America First” doctrine, the former president prioritized actions that he believed would benefit the United States economically, often disregarding concerns about undercutting U.S. global leadership. Hence, despite frequently adopting a negative tone when addressing China, Trump was still willing to describe China-U.S. relations as “the best relationship we’ve ever had” during the 2020 State of the Union address, shortly after signing the Phase One trade deal aimed at rebalancing trade between the two nations.

Even though Trump recently boasted about plans to initiate another China-U.S. trade war by imposing tariffs of 60 percent or higher on Chinese goods in a potential second term, such actions are highly unlikely to materialize for two key reasons. First, many business and rural Republicans have already rejected Trump’s proposals to slap new tariffs on Chinese imports, with some GOP China hawks even aligning with Democrats to voice their opposition. 

Second, while the U.S. economy under the Biden administration has gradually recovered, the risk of recession and inflation remains. Increasing tariffs on Chinese imports could potentially wreck the U.S. economy again, contradicting Trump’s objective. Economic growth has consistently been a central selling point of his policies.

Perhaps the most pronounced difference between Biden and Trump’s China policy lies in their approach to Taiwan. On multiple occasions, Biden has unequivocally stated that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an unprovoked attack by China. Furthermore, he has continued to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region amid China’s increasing assertiveness. 

In contrast, Trump characterized Taiwan as an economic rival, alleging that it “took away” American businesses. Aligned with the New Right within the GOP, Trump has doubled down on his pursuit of a path to isolationism, exemplified by his opposition to the Senate bill aimed at providing foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Trump’s indifference to Taiwan led China to speculate that the island might be abandoned by the United States if he won the election.

While Biden continues to emphasize competition with China, his long-standing political experience makes him more predictable than Trump, whose grip on the Republican Party is tighter than ever before. Under Biden’s leadership, the competition with China has evolved into a philosophical and political issue, whereas Trump predominantly views it through an economic lens. 

For China, then, the November 2024 election is a contest between a predictable hard-liner and an unpredictable opportunist. As the election approaches, the anti-China rhetoric from both presidential candidates will likely intensify. However, clearer versions of their China policies will also emerge, revealing more details of the policy gap between them.