Moyers on Democracy

Who Is Softer on China, Trump or Biden?

Trump and China have always had an uneasy relationship. Now the controversial trade war is overwhelmed by the pandemic. No doubt, China will be a large factor in the coming election.

Who Is Softer on China, Trump or Biden?

Flickr by Thomas Roggera / CC BY-SA

Trump’s China policy has been Janus: one face for China, the other for the rest of the world. Last January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump proclaimed that he and China’s Xi Jinping “love each other.” Also in January, Trump praised China for its “efforts and transparency” on coronavirus, and in February, commenting on China’s handling of coronavirus, he said: I think they’ve handled it professionally, and I think they’re extremely capable.” Trump has proven himself to be anything but a constant lover. The turnover in the White House chiefs of staff is but one small example.

Now, the ground has shifted, and Trump will apparently feature China as the villain in the presidential campaign. Stewing over his sagging political predicament, he wants to punish China for ruining the Trump economy, and blame Biden and the Democrats for being soft on China. Trump told Reuters that he believed “China will do anything they can” to have him lose the race.” 

He became so enraged last week over his sagging poll numbers in key states that he threatened to sue his campaign manager Brad Parscale for all the money Parscale has made on the campaign. Parscale indicated he had won Trump’s approval for new campaign ads trashing Biden for a soft stance on China. Speaking of Biden, Trump said: “Everything he ever did was bad. His foreign policy was a disaster.”

The Washington Post reported that Trump’s national security team is considering “retaliatory actions” against China in the nature of “financial compensation,” blaming Beijing for withholding information about the virus, allegations which China vehemently denies. 

Under consideration is revoking China’s sovereign immunity paving the way for trillion-dollar lawsuits in the United States brought by the government and private parties. Such a radical step might require Congress to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and so it is extremely unlikely, but the threat is there. 

Whatever measures Trump takes, China is almost certain to retaliate this amid reports that U.S.-China relations have never been worse, with major ramifications for trade, investment and the presidential election. Many wonder whether this is the right time to crack down on China. China’s economy like ours is in shreds, and the world economy is in a fragile state. 

But political considerations may reign supreme. Trump’s internal polls have shown 51 percent of voters in swing states blame China for the coronavirus, while only 24 percent blame Trump. No wonder Secretary of State Mike Pompeo piles on, calling covid-19 the “Wuhan virus,” and claims without support that the virus could have leaked from a top-security laboratory in Wuhan. U.S. businesses are pressing the Trump Administration to expand deferring duty payments on goods entered into the United States. A letter signed by more than 600 businesses and industry groups, calls for a delay on all duty payments covering March through June, an act that they point out “would immediately free up billions of dollars of working capital for American companies.” They argue convincingly that the current duty deferral program does not go far enough to increase liquidity for businesses struggling to respond to COVID-19 impacts on supply chains and consumer demand, especially since it does not include deferral of tariffs paid on certain steel/aluminum products and on select goods from China and from the European Union that run as high as 25 percent.

Trump has long featured his purported relationship with China as a signal accomplishment. When asked in March 2016 about the aspirations of China in the South China Sea, Trump answered, “I do deals with them all the time. The largest bank in the world, 400 million customers, is a tenant of mine in New York, in Manhattan.” “I have a great relationship with China,” Trump told Breitbart in early 2016. “I’ll do fine with China — we’ll do much better with China than we do now, and China [will] like us better than they do now.” The biggest tenant occupying the twentieth floor of New York’s Trump Tower was a China state-owned enterprise, the International and Commercial Bank of China, Ltd. (ICBC). Last October, ICBC downsized its presence at Trump Tower, shoehorning itself into an executive floor but still remaining one of the tower’s largest tenants. In kicking off his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump said, “I love China. The biggest bank in the world is from China. You know where their United States headquarters is located? In this building, in Trump Tower,” as though Trump Tower were a western outpost along the Silk Road.

Certain of Trump’s China acts in office have appeared to be irrational. At the very outset of his presidency, he signaled an abandonment of the “one China policy,” elaborated by eight presidents going back to Nixon in 1972. The one China policy states that the United States does not challenge the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China. In December, 2016, Trump and Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen conducted a short phone call regarding “the close economic, political and security ties between Taiwan and the U.S.” A few days after the call, Trump said that the United States is not necessarily bound by its one China policy. Trump then reversed his stance in February, 2017, when he and Xi Jinping had a lengthy telephone conversation. The two leaders discussed numerous topics, and President Trump agreed to honor the one China policy. What a time to rock the boat! And why?

And this was not all with the star-cross’d lovers. In May 2018, Trump out of the blue removed sanctions on the China technology firm ZTE, which traded with both Iran and North Korea. The executive order rescued ZTE from the jaws of bankruptcy. He acted without any interagency consultation. He said his astounding move would save China jobs, as though to “make China great again.”

Trump’s bragging about his perfect economy that was ruined by China fights the facts. Trump’s trade war (not China) cost American farmers dearly, and taxpayers overpaid them with subsidies amounting to nearly $28B, far more than they lost on soybeans sales into China. The trade war also cost the American consumer billions in higher prices for China-made goods or components in American-made goods. 

And, although Trump has a studied history of conveniently scapegoating others for his mistakes.

The U.S. government slept while Trump repeatedly tried to lie his way out of the problem, downplaying the pandemic, claiming we had it under control, denying the states ventilators and PPE, alleging that anyone who wants a test can get one, all the while saying that “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the failure to provide adequate testing,  just as he said that he takes no responsibility for those who ingested Clorox at his suggestion and wound up in the emergency room.

It really has nothing to do with China. It’s all about Trump v. Biden, a bizarre political theater smacking of the Kabuki.

James D. Zirin

James D. Zirin, a lawyer, is the author of the recently published book, “Plaintiff in Chief, -A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3500 Lawsuits.”