Susan Walsh / AP
President Trump’s rhetoric about cutting against China may have brought some lasting economic benefits so far, but it has succeeded in one main way: now no administration can afford to play well with the United States’ biggest rival.
Trump has made hostility to China at the center of his “America First” trade program, launching fierce attacks on Beijing’s policies and launching a trade war by slapping tariffs on two-thirds of Chinese imports.
All of these attacks have changed relations between the two economic superpowers, experts say. And while President-elect Joe Biden is likely to set a more polite tone, he can afford to ease China as Americans’ attitudes toward trade and major global deals have deteriorated in recent years.
Meanwhile, skepticism about China is rampant on both sides, especially among the progressives who helped choose Biden.
“I think the continuing inflammatory rhetoric that President Trump is using against China has basically made it impossible for an administration to come in immediately and change course,” said Chad Bone, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
This is a remarkable change for an incoming president who votes for NAFTA, although he later expressed concerns about it. He once voted to pave the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, ultimately helping to fuel the Asian country’s incredible rise as a manufacturing superpower.
But experts note that Trump has successfully shifted the debate over China by repeatedly accusing Beijing of predatory policies that have devastated U.S. industry, even if few companies have moved back to the United States.
Meanwhile, years of job losses and factory closures have solidified public views on trade, especially in key constituencies such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, according to Arthur Dong, a professor at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
“Biden, I think, is aware of that,” Dong said.
Hostility to China is shared by unions and left-wing groups that helped choose Biden and see previous democratic support for trade agreements such as NAFTA as treason.
“I don’t think the ’90s-style Democratic Party is fit for today’s electorate or for today’s economy, and I hope Joe Biden hires staff around him who understand that,” said Walid Shahid, a spokesman for the Progressive Democrats for Justice. a group linked to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes of New York.
Carolyn Custer / AP
This pressure from the left and the right means that Biden is unlikely to reverse Trump’s tariffs by removing the pen, leaving him with little chance of putting pressure on China.
And Biden may also be constrained by changes in global sentiment toward the United States under the Trump administration.
During the campaign, Biden criticized what he saw as Trump’s stand-alone approach to China, and said the United States should unite with Asia and Europe to force Beijing to play by trade rules.
“If we don’t establish the rules, we will actually end up with China setting the rules, so we need to organize the world to stop China, to stop the corrupt practices that are going on,” he said in a democratic debate for 2019.
This may be easier said than done. Joining allies to contain Beijing was the impetus for the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge trade deal between 12 Pacific states that excluded China.
But the TPP was dropped by Trump as soon as he took office, and Biden said he would not support it without significant improvements in labor and environmental guarantees.
Meanwhile, the world has moved forward without the United States. Over the weekend, China and 15 other countries signed their own trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Biden’s efforts to lead other countries in containing China also face another barrier.
Trump has clashed over trade not only with China but also with friendly countries such as Canada and Mexico, angering key allies and hurting the US leadership abroad, said Wendy Cutler, a former acting deputy trade representative.
“There is a lot of mistrust among our allies and partners with the United States, especially when it comes to trade,” Cutler said. “And, frankly, we’re getting more and more fed up with the countries.”
And then, there’s the biggest hurdle of all: Biden’s top priority will be to bring the U.S. economy back from the pandemic’s economic downturn, pushing other issues aside, Cutler said.
“Trade will not be a major issue for this administration, as it was for the Trump administration,” she said. “There are a lot of internal issues that need urgent attention.”
However, there is one way Biden is expected to change US relations with China. After nearly four years of fierce Trump attacks on China, including during the pandemic, most experts expect at least the tone to change.
“Trump’s trade policy is determined by protectionism and friendship and meanness,” said Dan Ickenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute. “I think President Biden’s trade policy will be more polite.”