Carney: Joe Biden Promises to Cure China’s Unfair Trade Practices with the Power of His Optimism

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden greets the crowd at a town hall meeting, Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Ottumwa, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)
AP Photo/Matthew Putney

Joe Biden has ditched his original stance of complacency toward China for a promise to confront China with his own optimism.

“While Trump is attacking our friends, China is pressing its advantage all over the world,” Biden said in Iowa. “So you bet I’m worried about China — if we keep following Trump’s path.”

That was a reversal of his earlier position, announced just last month, when Biden said, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!… They’re not competition for us.”

Biden has struggled to find his footing on China as the political consensus in the U.S. has shifted away from the policies that have dominated Washington, D.C. for all of his political career and informed his votes over decades. Those policies were built around the idea, now discredited, that appeasing China with market access, World Trade Organization membership, and favorable treatment in international agreements would lead China to adopt a market economy, liberalize its totalitarian politics, and move toward democracy.

Instead, China has built up its economic might and made plans to surpass the United States even while its Communist dictatorship solidified its grip on political power, snuffed out virtually all public dissent and free speech, and tightened its control of the Chinese people. Far from leading China down the path of prosperity to freedom, trade with the rest of the world has emboldened China’s ruling clique.

President Donald Trump has been in the vanguard of those who realize that the United States must adopt a more confrontational tactic to deal with China. “There is, however, one burgeoning area of foreign policy consensus that unifies Trumpists, Democrats, realists, liberals, and almost every foreign policy commentator out there: China,” Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote recently in a Washington Post op-ed.

This puts Biden in a bind. His campaign is not centered on new ideas so much as a rejection of the new approaches to national challenges embraced by Americans who voted for Trump. Most of all,  Biden is running as “not Trump.” And it’s this kneejerk “if Trump is for it, I’m against it” that led him to initially reject Trump’s China stance.

The trouble was that this amounted to “do nothing” about a real challenge. Trump did not dream up China’s predatory mercantalism, its serial theft of intellectual property, its policy of forced technology transfer, its unilateral tariffs and trade barriers, its subsidies of “national champions” aimed at dominating global high-tech manufacturing.

And it was out of sync with the leaders of the Democratic party. Both Senator Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have a record of tough-on-China rhetoric and cheered on the president’s recent moves to combat Chinese unfair trade practices.

Even the leaders of big businesses and behemoth Wall Street banks, once the fiercest defenders of the appeasement status quo with China, have changed their tune. China’s former c-suite friends now say they disagree with the use of tariffs but agree that China needs to change. They accuse Trump of not taking a more nuanced approach and not doing more to recruit allies to our side.  The cliché is that “Trump is using a cudgel” when he should be using…well, that’s not quite clear.

The problem with the corporate line on China is that it typically fails to articulate a credible alternative to Trump’s policies. It advocates working with allies to “keep the pressure up” without articulating what pressure can be brought to bear absent tariffs. China is not going to abandon its plans to use national industrial policy and unfair trade practices just because Japan, Canada, and the European Union stare at it with puppy-dog eyes. Without a plan for tangible pressure on China, the alternative to tariffs is just wishful thinking.

Trump’s recent threat of tariffs on imports from Mexico resulted in our southern neighbor promising to do more to support U.S efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigration flowing over our southern border. That was dramatic proof of the effectiveness of tariffs in accomplishing diplomatic goals. The Trump administration also successfully negotiated a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada to replace the failed North American Free Trade Agreement.  Tariffs get results.

Biden recent speech in Iowa moved toward the corporate consensus with his China flip-flop, while still clinging to a bit of his original thesis of “anything but Trump.”

While Trump is pursuing a damaging and erratic trade war, without any real strategy, China is positioning itself to lead the world in renewable energy.

While Trump is attacking our friends, China is pressing its advantage all over the world.

So you bet I’m worried about China — if we keep following Trump’s path.

But the reason I’m optimistic, and the point I’ve been making for years is —

IF we do what we need to do here at home,

IF we stand up for American interests,

IF we invest in our people, live our values, and work with our partners — We can out-compete anyone.

There is a thin thread of coherence here. It seems to say that the only problem with China is that Trump’s trade war is allowing China to position itself to lead the world in green tech and press advantage all over the world. So  the key to the China problem is just to elect Joe Biden. Which will also cure cancer, by the way.

But that thread is so thin it snaps under the pressure of a moment’s thought. Biden is basically saying he will combat China’s predatory mercantilism with nothing but his own indomitable optimism and a handful of government programs that Democrats have always touted. He offers nothing new. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing while expecting different results, Biden should probably be talking to a therapist regularly.

Barack Obama used to say, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Joe Biden’s new China policy is simply, “I’m the China policy you’ve been waiting for.”

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