Between wall-to-wall coverage of the fly and the smirks, it was easy to lose sight of one of the most important reveals of Wednesday’s vice presidential debate: There’s now more reason than ever to believe that if Joe Biden becomes President, he’ll lift President Trump’s tariffs on China. And just as important, there’s now more reason than ever to believe that this is exactly what China is expecting.
Whether you believe that Trump-type China trade policies have been needed and/or have worked (two closely related but not identical matters), the likelihood that the tariffs would be toast is incredibly important because it begs the questions of whether the Democratic nominee has a coherent alternative China trade poicy in mind that can adequately serve U.S. interests (along with alternative investment and tech policies) and whether he’s capable of developing one.
As known by RealityChek regulars, I believe that on both scores, the answer is an emphatic “No.” But what’s more important right now is making clear that Biden running mate Kamala Harris’ debate performance strongly indicated that a major course change is coming.
First, though, a deserved swipe at moderator Susan Page’s China question. Page, the Washington Bureau Chief of USA Today, inadvertently reminded viewers (and should have reminded the Commission on Presidential Debates that organizes such events) why veteran campaign and White House reporters are almost uniquely unqualified to serve in these roles – at least if you’re looking for some minimally satisfactory discussion of issues.
For these journalists tend to be preoccupied with politics, not policy – and with the most superficial horse race or gossipy dimensions of politics at that. As a result, their substantive background is even less impressive than that usually boasted by colleagues who are supposed to know something about the issues they cover (a low bar).
So although Page deserves some credit for even bringing up the topic of China policy, no one should have been surprised by the Happy Talk nature of her question. I mean, here’s a country that’s been blamed across the American political spectrum for destroying huge numbers of American jobs with its wide-ranging trade predation, whose tech companies have been just as widely deemed as dangers to U.S. national security and American’s privacy rights, which increasingly is threatening U.S. allies and other countries in the “Indo-Pacific” region (foreign policy mavens’ latest name for the Asia-Pacific region, due to India’s, and which is treating its own population ever more brutally.
And Page’s question was dominated by claims that China is “a huge market for American agricultural goods” and “a potential partner in dealing with climate change and North Korea”? Not to mention suggesting that its role in bringing the coronavirus to the nation and world is nothing more than a charge leveled by President Trump?
All the same, Harris’ answer was what counted:
“Susan, the Trump administration’s perspective, and approach to China has resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs and America’s standing. There is a weird obsession that President Trump has had with getting rid of whatever accomplishment was achieved by President Obama and Vice President Biden. For example, they created, within the White House, and office that basically was just responsible for monitoring pandemics. They got away, they got rid of it.”
Previously that evening, she argued that:
“You, [Vice President Mike Pence] earlier referred to, as part of what he thinks is an accomplishment, the President’s trade war with China. You lost that trade war. You lost it. What ended up happening is, because of a so called trade war with China, America lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Farmers have experienced bankruptcy, because of it. We are in a manufacturing recession, because of it. And when we look at this administration has been, there are estimates that by the end of the term of this administration, they will have lost more jobs than almost any other presidential administration.”
Let’s leave aside the accuracy or relevance of any of these points – like the 300,000 manufacturing jobs claim loss claim that apparently comes from an economist who admits his 2016 predictions about economy’s performance during the Trump era were completely off-base; or the plainly nutty insistence that the Trump China policy cost American lives.
If Harris believes any of this, and especially that the trade war has been “lost,” then clearly the only important question about the China tariffs isn’t whether they’ll be lifted by a President Biden, but how fast.
Moreover, there’s abundant evidence that Biden fully agrees that these Trump measures have been seriously counter-productive. When asked in August if he’d “keep the tariffs,” he responded, “No. Hey, look, who said Trump’s idea’s a good one?” said Biden. “Manufacturing has gone into a recession. Agriculture lost billions of dollars that taxpayers had to pay.” In other words, most of the main anti-tariff arguments in two pithy sentences.
An aide to the former vice president tried to walk back these remarks, shortly afterwards, but Biden’s words perfectly fit journalist Michael Kinsley’s epic definition of what’s usually mischaracterized in American politics as a “gaffe”: an instance “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
Equally interesting and important with regard to the Biden-Harris China policies – one clear and one possible new sign that Beijing is actively rooting for their success, and assuming the tariffs’ removal. The first came during the vice presidential debate, when Chinese authorities censored some of Pence’s critical comments on China just as Chinese audiences were about to hear them, and then restored the signal in time for Harris’ rejoinder.
The second came last night, when in its first announcement since the end of its Golden Week holiday of a new exchange rate for China’s currency, the yuan, versus the U.S. dollar, Beijing revalued (i.e., made it more expensive compared with the greenback) by the greatest amount in four and a half years. The main reason – at least as I see it: China believes that Biden will win, and is permitting its currency to strengthen because any competitiveness loss by its exports resulting from this and even significant further revaluation will be more than offset by the removal of U.S. levies that have typically hit 25 percent.
Of course, I could be wrong about Biden. So could China. But keep in mind that the former Vice President boasts that he knows Chinese dictator Xi Jinping well because of all the time he’s spent with him. Does anyone seriously think that, by the same token, Xi hasn’t learned a thing or two about Biden as well?