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Since he emerged as a major rival to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been criticized for lacking a killer instinct. Specifically, he’s generally declined to attack his competitors as harshly as many supporters and supposed political pros would like. (The articles here and here nicely frame the history.)  

I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on this debate, but with a crucial primary coming up in Michigan tomorrow, it’s clear to me that the progressive standard-bearer could use more of a killer instinct on a big policy issue: former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on China issues.

Sanders has decided to assail Biden on his overall trade record, which makes sense considering the latter’s support for the kind of trade deals and policy decisions (like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the rush to expand commerce of all kinds with China) that have hammered workers in manufacturing-heavy states like Michigan. 

But his focus is far too narrow, especially considering developments over the last few years and particularly the last few months. For the Democratic Socialist is solely emphasizing the job and wages loss resulting from agreements like the Biden-endorsed deal that supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 – which granted Beijing vital legal protection against unilateral American efforts to fight its protectionism and other forms of economic predation. That mattered greatly because many of these Chinese transgressions persisted post-WTO and by all accounts have worsened under the regime of Xi Jinping.

It’s now clear, however, that the China threat is even worse because it’s far broader; that Biden as long-time Senator from Delaware in particular flunked those non-economic policy tests, too; and that the biggest arguably was the WTO vote. So despite signs from polls that Americans generally (though not necessarily in manufacturing centers) aren’t as opposed to pre-Trump trade policies as in the past, the same surveys make clear that all manner of China-related concerns are mounting, and that therefore hitting Biden for supporting measures that have clearly increased Beijing’s wealth, power, and consequent capacities to threaten key U.S. interests in many fields would succeed roaringly.

Indeed, Biden’s stated justification in 2000 for favoring the crucial WTO decision looks especially and dangerously loopy nearly two decades later, when a Chinese cover-up helped the coronavirus become a serious threat to the United States and the rest of the world at large, when American leaders have finally become aware of how the industrial offshoring accelerated by the WTO move has made the nation shockingly dependent on healthcare products from China, and when the PRC’s official press has just published an article all but threatening to plunge the United States into coronavirus hell by blocking the export of the drugs and their chemical ingredients needed to fight the pandemic.

For in 2000, Biden made clear that he mainly supported China’s entry into the trade body – and ending the policy of granting Beijing tariff breaks only on an annual basis and only if its repressive human rights practices improved – in the belief that this new approach would both promote political and economic freedom in China and help “encourage” its “development as a productive, responsible member of the world community.”

Moreover, Biden not only guzzled the kool-aid of claims that WTO entry would foster greater political as well as economic freedoms in China. He argued that such change was exactly what most of China’s leaders intended. These dictators, he argued,

have consciously undertaken–for their own reasons, not ours–a fundamental transformation of the communist system that so long condemned their great people to isolation, poverty, and misery. They have been forced to acknowledge the failure of communism, and have conceded the irrefutable superiority of an open market economy.”

Biden was right in noting that economic reforms already by then undertaken had greatly improved living standards for enormous numbers of Chinese. But he was completely wrong in believing that “this growing prosperity” would start bringing more democratic reform and a move toward genuinely open markets. Nor did he foresee that because China’s economic progress depended on amassing ever greater trade surpluses in ever more sophisticated products – and especially with the United States, the world’s biggest, most lucrative market – much of the rise in Chinese living standards would come at the expense of American domestic manufacturing and its workforce.

In fact, Biden explicitly scoffed at fears that WTO entry would bring about “the collapse of the American manufacturing economy, as China, a nation with the impact on the world economy about the size of the Netherlands, suddenly becomes our major economic competitor.”

But in light of China’s growing international belligerence particularly under Xi Jinping, it’s disturbing that the then-Senator – supposedly a foreign policy expert – was equally blind to the likelihood that a WTO-fostered “emergence of a prosperous, independent, China on the world stage” would enable China to flout “international norms in the areas of trade, security, and human rights” whenever it chose, rather than strengthen China’s loyalty to that “liberal global order.” 

Sanders and other critics of the WTO decision rightly derided all of these declared convictions. But I’ve yet to hear him spotlight the dangers to America’s global technology leadership and therefore national security (including health security) generated and continually worsened by the richer, stronger China made possible by the policies supported by Biden and the rest of the bipartisan globalist establishment that ran Washington, D.C. – and U.S. China policy – before Donald Trump’s election as President. P.S. A China that achieved its strategic goals could decimate American living standards still further.

This presidential campaign has already featured so many ups and downs, and so many front-runners who have risen and fallen, that Michigan probably won’t be  Sanders’ last chance to mount a broad-brush attack on Biden’s atrocious China record. (Just FYI, as of this afternoon, the polls show Sanders getting thumped.) The continuing coronavirus fallout could create further opportunities for him as well.

What is clear, however, and to large, growing numbers of Americans, is that enabling the rise of China ranks as one of the most potentially calamitous mistakes in American history.  And the sooner Sanders starts exploiting Biden’s role in enabling it (which continued during the do-nothing Obama administration), the better.