US-China Relations Under Trump, as Seen Through the 2020 Debates

 /  Nov. 10, 2020, 9:11 a.m.

Trump and Biden

In declaring a “winner” for this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates, it wouldn’t be out of the question to say that China won every debate. That’s exactly what several articles declared after the first debate included several mentions of China and anti-democratic rhetoric. The talk of China, however, didn’t stop there. The nation continued to be a major talking point throughout all the debates, with references to their response to COVID-19, trade deals, and even China’s involvement with President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. 

These soundbites from the debates are confusing when taken out of context. Over the past four years of the Trump administration, the United States and China’s relationship has taken a turn in many negative ways. Unpacking these quotes from the debates are key to understanding the relationship between the United States and China today—and how it is likely to change under a Biden administration.

Round 1: Trump v. Biden 

President Donald Trump, referring to COVID-19’s spread and explosion in the United States, stated: “And one person is too much—it's China's fault, it should have never happened. They stopped it from going in, but it was China's fault, by the way.” Trump went on to refer to COVID-19 as “the China Plague.”

Biden then said of the COVID-19 crisis and Trump’s response to China’s handling of it: “He went in and he, we were insisting that the Chinese, the people we had on the ground in China should be able to go to watch, and determine for themselves, how dangerous this was. He did not even ask Xi to do that. He told us what a great job Xi was doing. He said we owe him a debt of gratitude for being so transparent with us. What did he do then? He then, he waited and waited and waited.” 

Trump has continued to put blame on China for its handling of coronavirus. Specifically, Trump has repeatedly mentioned holding China financially responsible for the US COVID-19 response and taking away its sovereign immunity, which prevents citizens from suing the Chinese government. 

This isn’t the first time Trump has pinned China as the source of American problems. China as the enemy economically and politically has been key to Trump’s campaign rhetoric since 2016. COVID-19 has greatly escalated this rhetoric, with Trump even supporting a conspiracy theory that the virus was made at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and subsequently spread from there. 

Biden’s claims, however, are a little more complex. Biden is likely referring to the absence of World Health Organization experts on the ground in the early days of the virus. He’s also correct in saying Trump frequently praised President Xi Jinping in those early days, tweeting that “The United States greatly appreciates their [China’s] efforts and transparency,” on January 24 and “I think President Xi is working very, very hard. I spoke to him. He's working very hard. I think he's doing a very good job,” on February 23. These are only a few snippets of the vast amount of praise Trump gave to Xi before the virus hit hard in the United States. Biden’s main claim is that Trump waited to take real action that could have prevented COVID-19 from becoming the major issue that it is today in America. In essence, while Trump is blaming China now, it’s a very different tune from the early days of COVID-19—and Biden was pointing this difference out loud and clear. 

Biden went on to talk about how “China's made, perfected the art of the steal. We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before. We have the highest trade deficit with Mexico --” 

Trump cut Biden off, saying, “China ate your lunch, Joe. No wonder your son goes in and he takes out what he takes out, billions of dollars. Takes out billions of dollars to manage. He makes millions of dollars.” Trump alleges Hunter Biden made a “fortune” in China, among other countries. 

By now, most voters have heard about the trade war with China that began in 2018. However, Trump decided to steer the conversation in a very different direction with the mention of Biden’s son, Hunter. These China allegations come from a long string of stories regarding Hunter’s involvement in both Ukraine and China. Specific to China, it is alleged that the younger Biden was receiving millions from a Chinese billionaire for “introductions,” the meaning of which was not further clarified.

Other allegations stem from Hunter’s direct involvement in China, including when he flew with his father in 2013 and met with a banker, which he said was just for a social visit. However, less than two weeks after the visit, a private equity firm was approved with said banker at the helm and Hunter Biden on the board with a 10 percent stake. This has served as a point of contention. Trump is thus referring to Hunter’s deals with companies in China and specific relations with businessmen when he speaks about taking out “billions of dollars” from the country. 

Round 2: Trump v. Biden

On election manipulation, Biden stated that “China has been involved to some degree”. 

While pretty self-explanatory on its face, this comment is more complicated than it appears. Voters may remember an allegation that Trump told Xi, “make sure I win.” Rather than direct electoral manipulation, Trump was asking Xi to buy more crops to ensure his reelection.

However, more sinister explanations also exist. The United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence has expressed concern for electoral manipulation by China. Instead of overt manipulation, however, China is looking to advance its own strategy by, for instance, emphasizing the US mishandling of COVID-19. China also doesn’t want to see criticism in any form, including over issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or COVID-19. Misinformation is not China’s main game. Certain propaganda has infiltrated into the United States, and there were fears that China could use economic means to manipulate the election. China has also hacked campaigns, specifically campaign emails. So China is involved to “some degree,” as Biden said—but it is far from clear which candidate the nation prefers. 

Biden, on Trump: “We learn that this President paid fifty times the tax in China, as a secret bank account with China, does business in China, and in fact, is talking about me taking money?” 

This statement, in reference to the comments from the first debate on Hunter Biden’s potential involvement in China, pins the blame of improper personal conduct with China right back on Trump. This is a true statement—the New York Times reported that Trump maintains an account in China and has paid upwards of $100,000 in taxes. The account, however, is not on public records as it is technically a corporate account for business in China with Trump Hotels International, thus Biden’s reference to the account as “secret”. 

Biden on his policy for foreign relations with China: “What I’d make China do is play by the international rules, not like he has done. He has caused the deficit in China to go up, not down—with China, go up, not down.” 

Biden is referring to his planned foreign relations policy of requiring China to play by the global rules of the game, likely in relation to China’s COVID-19 coverups and reported economic undermining via methods such as currency manipulation. However, his second statement is false, according to the New York Times. The trade deficit between the United States and China, the gap between how many goods are imported versus exported, dropped between 2018-2019 due to Trump’s tariffs on China. Yet at the end of former president Barack Obama’s term, the deficit was $347 billion, while at the end of 2019 under Trump it was $345 billion. Thus, the trade deficit has gone down, but not by a significant amount. 

Trump, on China policy: “China is paying. They’re paying billions and billions of dollars. I just gave $28 billion . . . They devalued their currency and they also paid up, and you know who got the money? Our farmers. Our great farmers, because they would target it. You never charge them anything. Also, I charged them 25 percent on dumped steel, because they were killing our steel industry.

Trump is referring to the trade war with China that began in 2018. While he did technically give $28 billion to farmers from a Department of Agriculture fund, it was actually taxpayer money meant to mitigate damage from the trade war with China and trade wars with Europe.

One major facet of the trade war is the steel industry, which has largely declined in America in the past years. Trump imposed high tariffs on China, the largest importer of steel into the United States, with allegations that they were flooding the US market. Largely, however, the trade war caused a loss of about 300,000 jobs and 0.3 percent of GDP. 

The Final Round: Pence v. Harris 

Kamala Harris on China: “Pew, a reputable research firm, has done an analysis that shows that leaders of all of our formerly allied countries have now decided that they hold a greater esteem and respect Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, than they do Donald Trump, the President of the United States, the commander in chief of the United States.

Pew really did show that western Europeans have more confidence in Xi than in Trump. Most countries, however, still view the United States more favorably, though that’s not by a high margin. China was ranked higher when it comes to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s viewed as a greater world economic power as compared to the United States. These views, to many, would be notable due to the history of China’s regimes and their contentious relationship with the international community on issues from sovereignty to security

As all the debate quotes on China demonstrate, the relationship between China and the United States has always been contentious. However, with COVID-19 and recent disputes over trade, the relationship has reached new lows—and occasionally highs with Trump’s praise of Xi. The hot-and-cold relationship under Trump seems to be something Biden would want to do away with, based on his rhetoric during the debate. The future of the United States relationship with China, and to what extent it will be held responsible in the international sphere, was up for election in 2020. It’s now up to the Biden administration to decide what the US-China relationship will become. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here

Julianna Rossi

Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.


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