Why Does Biden's China Policy Look So Much Like Trump's? : The NPR Politics Podcast Biden's top trade official, Katherine Tai, indicated in a Monday speech that tariffs levied against China initiated during the Trump administration would remain in place. The countries have been unable to work out key economic and political disagreements.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, and international correspondent John Ruwitch.

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Why Does Biden's China Policy Look So Much Like Trump's?

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NATE: Hey. This is Nate (ph). Currently, I am in the middle of a farm field digging up potatoes with my bare hands. You are listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...


Nate kind of sounds like Matthew Broderick. I'm just going to say it. It's 12:13 Eastern on Monday, October 4.

NATE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this podcast. All right. On with the show.


JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: There was no potato-digging scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."


DETROW: That is true. None at all.

Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. Potatoes are one of my favorite foods. And I cover the White House.

KHALID: (Laughter) I'm Asma Khalid. I too enjoy potatoes, though I've never actually dug them up with my own hands, so kudos to you. And I also cover the White House.

DETROW: Mashed or baked?

KHALID: Mashed.

DETROW: Mashed is a no-brainer. And today, in addition to our favorite potato recipes, we are talking about the U.S. relationship with China. And luckily for us and for NPR and for listeners, NPR has a reporter whose entire job it is to cover that very issue. And that's NPR's John Ruwitch.

John, welcome to the podcast.

RUWITCH: Hey. I'm happy to be here.

DETROW: We are talking about China today because U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai just gave a speech laying out changes the Biden administration is making on how it approaches trade with China. And the big headline is that it's actually leaving a lot of those tougher Trump-era policies in place. This is part of an effort by the Biden administration to try and do two things at the same time - protect workers and businesses from what Tai describes as unfair trade practices by China, but also doing this without hurting the parts of the economy that rely on Chinese goods, which is, of course, huge parts of the economy.

So before we get into all of that, Asma, let's start with you. How would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and China right now?

KHALID: Oh, gosh. I mean, that's such a tricky question to answer, Scott, because it's a really, like, complicated and complex multifaceted relationship. And I will say that when it comes to trade in particular, what I have been struck by as somebody who covered, you know, Joe Biden's campaign and now is covering his administration is there has been such a desire to create a huge departure from Donald Trump...


KHALID: ...From the previous administration, on pretty much just about every policy issue. But when it comes to trade, they are walking this delicate line where they are in fact keeping some elements of Donald Trump's trade policy, but also, politically, you know, don't really want to say that too loudly or vocally, right?


KHALID: That - there is some degree of recognition that that is politically toxic for them. And so I think that what I have been most struck by is the fact that, you know, broadly, there are elements of what Donald Trump did that they are maintaining. Of course, they're going to say that it's different, that they're doing this more methodically and working with allies.

DETROW: And we will get into those changes momentarily. But first, John, there's so many questions - big-picture questions - I want to get to you on, but let's start with this. The approach to China really dominates so much of the Biden administration's thinking right now, and it also plays such an enormous role in U.S. politics for a lot of different reasons. And I'm wondering, does the relationship with the U.S. play as big of a role in China right now with how the Chinese government thinks about what it's doing around the world? Is it as U.S.-focused as the U.S. is China-focused?

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's a good - I mean, I think it is. The - relations between the two are certainly at their worst in decades, right? And it's made Chinese officials really uncomfortable. You know, despite the economic gains and kind of growing clout that China's had, what they want is stability in the relationship.

The U.S. is still critical to them even though their sort of prism for viewing U.S.-China relations and relations between China and the rest of the world is China is on the rise and the U.S. and the West are on the way down. They couldn't figure out the Trump administration, right? They tried to figure out who to talk to.


RUWITCH: I don't think they were successful at that. They were hopeful about Biden. They wanted more quote-unquote "normal" relations. And Biden and Xi have spent a lot of time together, remember, right? They were both vice presidents. They have a personal relationship.

DETROW: Yeah, Biden often talks about that. Yeah.

RUWITCH: Right. And they had a phone call in September. Xi Jinping brought it up in the phone call. So, you know, I think Chinese officials have been frustrated and potentially some - there are certainly pundits among them who say, you know, it's kind of a lost cause.

DETROW: So given that background, Asma, what did Katherine Tai announce today?

KHALID: So she said that the Biden administration intends to ratchet up pressure on China to fulfill its end of this deal commonly known as Phase 1. It was this trade deal that the Trump administration brokered in the final year of Trump's presidency.

In addition to that, they're going to reopen this thing called the tariff exclusions process. Long story short, there have been a number of U.S. businesses - American companies - that have been really frustrated because, to date, under President Biden, there was really no general mechanism to apply for an exemption to these tariffs. So they're going to restart that process.

They say they're also focused heavily on, you know, infrastructure. We talk about this all the time on the podcast. And they basically feel like it is important to build up your strength here at home, and that China's been doing that. And that the United States, in order to compete, needs to do that as well.

But they say that a big component of all of this for them is, again, to work with the global community. And that's where they see a sort of key distinction between how they view trade policies and how their predecessor - how Donald Trump - viewed this relationship, and that they feel he just focused exclusively on unilateral action.

DETROW: John, any sense yet how China is responding? Because, you know, on one hand, the Biden administration makes such a big deal of the fact that it is more predictable, that it's more professional on so many fronts than the Trump administration. But at the same time, the end results seem relatively similar.

RUWITCH: So far - I mean, to me, it seems like China really isn't playing ball anywhere in the relationship, although there's a little bit about the way things are going in trade that I think may be a little bit potentially - maybe walled-off from the rest of the relationship to a certain extent.

I mean, Katherine Tai had one phone call with the man who's ostensibly her counterpart in China - this man called Liu He, who's a vice premier. He's Xi Jinping's right-hand man on economics and trade. And that was in late May. And they said it was candid, pragmatic and constructive, which are words you always hear when there are talks between senior officials from two countries.

I will say, though, that China, you know, in terms of rhetoric, in terms of propaganda, they're on board with Phase 1, only they've argued that, you know, it's good for both countries, it's good for the world. But, you know, they want the atmosphere and the conditions to be there for full implementation. You know, what exactly that means, we don't know. It seems to be pointing in the direction of...

DETROW: (Laughter).

RUWITCH: ...A little bit of what they've been doing across the board in the relationship, which is - you broke it, you fix it. You know, we don't - we're not going to move until you start to roll back some of the bad things that Donald Trump did.

DETROW: And by Phase 1, you're broadly referring to agreements that were reached during the Trump administration last year. Can one or both of you give me an example of what this means in the real world, what these tougher policies that went in place during the Trump era meant for consumers or factories just, you know, whether it's hypothetical or something you've covered?

KHALID: You know, I can tell you that from the American business community's perspective, they view these tariffs as a tax. They say it's a tax on American manufacturers who import, you know, some of their goods from China. But they say in some cases it's also a tax on American consumers because, you know, companies are paying more for these things, and so, therefore, they're passing on that tax to, you know, whatever product. And frankly, these tariffs are on a lot of things.


KHALID: Some Trump trade officials tell me that they feel like tariffs are not a perfect tool, but there's a recognition that there's not a great alternative, that previous presidents have tried negotiating with China, that they've tried using, you know, the powers of the World Trade Organization, and that those things haven't worked. And so they don't really know what else, potentially, would work. And so I think there is a recognition from what we're seeing from President Biden's team as well, that tariffs, maybe they're not perfect, but they provide some usefulness.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk about how this fits into the bigger picture of U.S.-China relations on everything from increased military tensions to climate change to a range of other things.

We are back. And, John, I want to go back to one of the first points you made. You said that there's been some frustration and disappointment in China on how the Biden administration has approached U.S.-China relationships because, you know, you mentioned Biden was a known figure. He is somebody whose foreign policy moves are by and large predictable compared to his predecessor, right? He talked a lot about, on one hand, the long relationship that he had with the president of China but at the same time was saying the U.S. needs to get tougher. So I'm wondering what the mood has been like, what the response has been as these tough trade policies stay in place as Biden goes around the world trying to organize European countries to take a tougher stand on China? And one other factor that you were just reporting on - suddenly, you know, even though they keep saying it has nothing to do with China, gives this highly sensitive, very expensive submarine technology to Australia in what everyone is interpreting as a bid to counter Chinese military aggression. I mean, that's a lot of stuff.

RUWITCH: That's a lot of questions. I think from China's perspective, the thing to keep in mind is that at this point, there's a narrative in China that's very popular - that is that the East is rising, and the West is falling. This is something I raised earlier. Chinese leaders buy into this, and it started with the financial problems of 2007, 8, 9 - around that period. And the, you know, events of today feed into that. The way that the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, for instance - they've made hay out of that in propaganda about how the U.S. basically can't - you know, doesn't have effective foreign policy, can't get its act together. The Chinese have really pushed back hard against this idea that the Biden administration keeps putting out there and that Katherine Tai brought up today, which is that the U.S. is negotiating now from a position of strength. They hate to hear that, and they don't think that's the case. They've pushed really hard.

Their stance seems to be that, you know, the relationship has gone off the rails, and it is incumbent upon the Biden administration to put it back on the rails if they want to get anywhere with China. We're not really seeing any interest in terms of concessions or confidence-building measures from China. And, you know, when you talk to U.S. officials, as you guys have, they expressed frustration about the interactions they've had with the Chinese officials. When Wendy Sherman - who's the deputy secretary of state, the No. 2 at the State Department - visited in July, there was frustration about how that went because China released these very strong propaganda statements in the middle of the meeting. Even when Joe Biden called Xi Jinping in September, I mean, that was a move to kind of kickstart the relationship, but state media played up Xi Jinping's pushback against Joe Biden.

KHALID: Scott, the other big arena that the United States and China in theory want to cooperate on is climate. Though I will say, you know, some experts tell me that China has made it very clear that if the United States wants their cooperation, they need to see some movement on the tariffs front.

DETROW: And, John, there was some movement on China's front, though, during the U.N. opening sessions a couple of weeks ago, right?

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's right. Xi Jinping pledged that China would no longer - basically no longer build coal-fired power plants outside of China. It's interesting. I mean, there are some who have looked at that and interpret it as potentially, you know, the Chinese government coming around to realizing that this new sort of competitive stance that the Biden administration towards China is something that they're going to have to live with. And I guess I'm not fully convinced. China is positioning itself as a leader on climate - a global leader on climate. And at home over the years, they've had horrible air quality issues that have sparked protests. The Communist Party is not a fan of, you know, popular protests. It wants control, and it's taken steps on the climate to help bring that under control.

KHALID: You know, Scott, I think one really big-picture thing to keep in mind is that this isn't just about the U.S.-China relationship on a global level. Part of this is also about domestic politics. And when you look at public opinion polling, there's, like, bipartisan views that show China is widely not popular in the United States, right? And this has moved over the last few years. And I think that's part of what makes managing this relationship so complicated for Joe Biden because there's a domestic audience as well to consider. So he can't really, say, have widespread changes to tariffs, for example, without actually, you know, getting some concessions from China.

RUWITCH: Yeah. China - there's a domestic audience in China, too. It may not be a democracy like the U.S. where there's direct voting, but Xi Jinping has an audience he needs to play to. And next year there's a party congress, which is where it - once every five years, the Communist Party selects new leaders. The odds are on for Xi Jinping to get a third term, which would be unprecedented in sort of the past few decades. And so, you know, despite the fact that he's the most powerful Chinese leader in, you know, since Mao, is what people say, he has to keep certain people happy. And right now, you know, giving in to the U.S. is probably not very high on his list.

DETROW: All right. Well, John Ruwitch, Asma and I always enjoy Slacking with you about these topics, so I'm glad that we could turn it into a podcast episode.

Thanks for joining us today.

RUWITCH: More than happy to do it - really fun. Thanks.

DETROW: We'll talk to you soon. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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