Election 2020

Biden Camp Tries to Walk Fine Line on China

The Democratic candidate wants to get tough with Beijing, but he’s responding to Asian American pleas not to provoke a backlash.

Then-U.S Vice President Joe Biden attends a business leader breakfast at the St. Regis Beijing hotel in China on Dec. 5, 2013.
Then-U.S Vice President Joe Biden attends a business leader breakfast at the St. Regis Beijing hotel in China on Dec. 5, 2013. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In May, representatives of progressive Asian American organizations held a virtual meeting with Joe Biden’s camp to raise concern about the Democratic candidate’s China policy, in particular his efforts to demonstrate he was tougher on Beijing than President Donald Trump, which risked exposing Chinese Americans to backlash.

The meeting, which was described by three people familiar with it, followed the airing in April of a political ad by the Biden campaign titled “Unprepared,” denouncing Trump as weak on China. The ad—which faulted Trump for having “rolled over for the Chinese” and letting 40,000 travelers from China into the country after he imposed a flight ban in response to the coronavirus—provoked anger and dismay among progressive Democrats and Asian American advocates, who felt it risked fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment.

“We made our concerns clear and communicated very strongly that we wanted to see the campaign stop using this xenophobic and anti-China rhetoric,” said one person present at the meeting with Amit Jani, who serves as the Asian American Pacific Islander outreach director on Biden’s campaign. “It was clear we were not the first group to raise this concern.”

The Biden campaign offered no guarantees. But it did respond to the appeal—which followed the publication of a letter by Asian American groups criticizing Biden’s ad—by slightly softening its approach in subsequent ads. Instead of highlighting Trump’s apparent acquiescence to China, the new ads criticized his weakness in challenging the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. They also stopped promoting the claim that Trump allowed tens of thousands of potentially infected travelers from China into the country.

But some Asian American advocates say Biden hasn’t gone far enough.

“The Biden campaign has responded to concerns we and others have raised and dialed down the tone of the most inflammatory rhetoric in the original ad,” said Tobita Chow, the director of Justice Is Global, a Chicago-based advocacy group. “Even so, the whole messaging strategy of trying to compete to prove who is tougher is going to continue to feed into this rise of anti-Asian racism. And it’s going to continue to poison the U.S.-China relationship.”

“It is clear that Biden’s choice is to double down on this [anti-China] messaging,” added Grace Pai, the director of movement politics for Asian American Midwest Progressives, who helped organize the letter-writing effort. “The strategy of going to war with the Trump camp over China is still consistent.”

An informal advisor to the Biden campaign told Foreign Policy that the former vice president is clear-eyed about the need to coexist with China and to work together to resolve pressing global challenges, from the effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming to containing the coronavirus and convincing North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. But the advisor said Biden will continue to call out China on a number of issues, including its mass incarceration of Muslim Uighurs, its suppression of information about the coronavirus, and its promotion of unfair trade practices.

“I don’t think anyone wants a knife fight,” the advisor said. “I don’t get the sense that the vice president wants a race to the bottom on who can be tougher on China. But Trump has been very much standing with Xi, and so this is something that of course the vice president would be focused on.”

Biden and then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping talk during an expanded bilateral meeting with other U.S. and Chinese officials at the White House in Washington on Feb. 14, 2012.

Biden and then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping talk during an expanded bilateral meeting with other U.S. and Chinese officials at the White House in Washington on Feb. 14, 2012. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Biden camp is trying to walk a fine line between accommodating an important, growing constituency and mounting a forceful campaign against a president who portrays the former vice president as weak and ineffectual in the face of a rising China that poses a threat to U.S. national security, according to sources close to the campaign.

The controversy comes as key strategists in the Democratic and Republican parties have been rethinking the wisdom of a long-standing bipartisan policy of engagement with China that dates back to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the country.

China hawks in the Trump administration, including U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, have advocated a broader decoupling of the U.S. economy from China’s, arguing that decades of economic integration have resulted in the loss of U.S. jobs and intellectual property. That effort—which includes a reduction in U.S. imports through tariffs—has accelerated as the pandemic has exposed the degree of dependence the United States has on Chinese supply chains.

Influential foreign-policy experts in the Democratic camp—including Ely Ratner, Kurt Campbell, and Jake Sullivan, a senior advisor to Biden—have also advocated a tougher line on China, arguing in a series of essays and public statements that U.S. engagement policy has failed to shape China’s rise as a responsible global partner.

“Although Washington remains bitterly divided on most issues, there is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close,” Campbell and Sullivan wrote last fall in Foreign Affairs. “The debate now is over what comes next.”

“China has managed to secure some tactical gains,” Sullivan told Foreign Policy, citing the U.S. withdrawal from key international agencies, including the World Health Organization. “That vacuum that Washington leaves gets filled by Beijing.”

“I think China is positioning itself to take advantage of fiscal and debt crises around the world to continue to expand their economic influence,” he added. But “an authoritarian regime that relies on repression and an extreme set of policies to keep its own people in line is not going to be very attractive to the rest of the world.”

In a separate interview with Reuters, Sullivan said Biden will continue to draw attention to what he views as Trump’s weak approach to China, citing the president’s unjustified praise of Xi’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak and his alienation of key allies who will be critical partners in checking China’s global dominance.

“The vice president intends to do two things: hold Trump accountable for a catastrophic set of failures in his approach to China, and a colossal gap between tough talk and weak action,” Sullivan said.

Still, the Biden campaign has been sensitive to the criticism that some of its past statements might cause problems for Asian Americans. On May 27, Biden and Sen. Tammy Duckworth wrote an op-ed for NBC News underscoring the threat to Asian Americans under Trump, saying the group have been “needlessly, cruelly scapegoated by the most powerful man on the planet, President Donald Trump, who has racialized the pandemic and stoked xenophobia every time he’s uttered the term ‘Chinese virus.’

“No insult, no insinuation — even when it comes from the president in the middle of the Rose Garden telling an Asian American reporter to ‘ask China’ — can change the fact that Asian Americans are just as American as anyone else lucky enough to be a daughter or a son of the United States,” wrote Biden and Duckworth, who is Thai American and a U.S. Army veteran.

In his public writings, Biden has highlighted his long experience negotiating with China’s leadership and portrayed the country as an untrustworthy powerhouse that needs to be contained by a coalition of democratic governments. He claimed that Beijing has unfairly subsidized state-owned enterprises, giving them a “leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future.”

“The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. “If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.”

But he has also made clear that the United States will work with China and other countries on a number of issues, from the international effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the negotiation of “enforceable commitments” to reduce emissions in global shipping and aviation.

“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, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security,” Biden wrote.

For Chow, such talk underscored the degree to which both parties have taken “a sharply negative and hawkish turn against China,” a reflection, he said, of the enduring power of the idea of American exceptionalism. There is “a belief that the United States must remain the world’s sole superpower, that the U.S. needs to retain the ability to dominate every other part of the planet,” he added.

Chow contends that the majority of U.S. voters would rather see the United States and China cooperate on global issues, including climate change and the pandemic, rather than seeking confrontation. “We need U.S.-China cooperation to meet the urgent needs of Americans and humanity in general,” he added. “Instead, what we still have is both parties trying to compete for the title of who is going to be tougher on China. I think that is counterproductive.”

The debate coincides with a flurry of anti-Asian attacks. In the two months after March 19, 1,843 reports of anti-Asian discrimination were documented by Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center created by San Francisco State University and two advocacy groups, including verbal harassment, workplace discrimination, and physical assault.

One respondent recalled being called “Chinese coronavirus” while waiting in line for fast food. “The young man spit and pretended to cough. I was with my sister, an RN [registered nurse] who was getting a [health] hero meal, and my 6-year-old son.”

The criticism presents a dilemma for Biden, and his campaign team appears to be struggling to find the right balance to strike. Does he continue to call out Trump—who has portrayed him as weak on China—for hypocrisy, drawing attention to the president’s frequent, and ultimately false, public pronouncements back in January that China had been transparent in informing the world about the risk of the virus spreading beyond its borders? Or should he spend most of the campaign taking the high road and concentrate on highlighting the importance of U.S.-Chinese cooperation on a number of global challenges, from fighting the pandemic to stalling the pace of climate change?

“There is a legitimate and powerful way to attack Trump on China without attacking Chinese Americans or Asian Americans,” said Chris Lu, who served as an advisor to President Barack Obama. Lu, who is not an official member of the Biden campaign, spoke to Foreign Policy at the request of campaign officials. “If you ask people in the Asian American and Chinese American community, the greater concern is Trump talking about the ‘Chinese virus’ and the troubling increase in racially motivated attacks,” Lu added.

There appears to be little risk that Asian Americans—the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. electorate—will vote in large numbers for Trump, who has demonized American immigrant groups in general and has potentially fostered a rise in attacks against Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans by seeking to classify the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”

But some Asian American supporters of Biden have expressed concern that an anti-China political campaign could inspire hate crimes and affect Asian American voting in November. “Many Asian American organizations that are working to turn out our Asian American voters are deeply concerned about how this rhetoric will depress turnout,” Pai said. “We are working to defeat Trump, and Biden’s campaign is not helping us achieve that goal.”

Even some Asian American commentators, however, suggest Biden would be foolish to sit back and allow Trump to define him as soft on America’s biggest strategic competitor.

“Campaigns are tough; they are messy. Subtlety doesn’t win you any points in a campaign,” Lu said. “Trying to refute Donald Trump with subtlety is probably not a winning strategy.”

More broadly, the Biden campaign is focused on promoting human rights, pushing back against authoritarianism, and underscoring the importance of rebuilding relations with U.S. allies, many of whom have been subject to economic, diplomatic, and military bullying by China, the informal advisor to Biden’s campaign added. “Those issues have to be addressed and called out,” the advisor said.

The advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trump has attacked and alienated key allies, in Europe and beyond, whose backing is essential to preserving America’s influence and to pushing back on Chinese efforts to dominate the global market on future technologies—from 5G to artificial intelligence—and to flex its muscles in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.

“This campaign is not about China-bashing. It is about how to [recover] the leverage that we have lost, how to rebuild those relationships with allies and do those things that make the U.S. stronger, more credible, and more influential.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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