DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The U.S.-China relationship has become a central issue in the presidential election year, and President Trump likes to suggest that former Vice President Joe Biden is too close to Chinese leaders. But the Biden campaign says the president hasn't held China accountable for the coronavirus pandemic. Here's NPR's Asma Khalid.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When the president is criticized for how he has handled the coronavirus outbreak, he'll often point a finger at China.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's nobody ever been tougher on China than me.
KHALID: In fact, the president says he got elected in 2016 because of his tough talk on China - specifically, trade. In 2020, he's accusing his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, of being weak on China. But the fight over who's tough on China is no longer just about long-standing trade concerns. It's also about this pandemic that originated in China. Here's a recent ad from America First, a super PAC supporting President Trump.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Joe Biden attacked Trump after the China travel ban.
JOE BIDEN: Xenophobia and fear mongering.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For 40 years, Joe Biden has been wrong about China.
KHALID: The ad ends with an image of the Chinese flag billowing over Biden's face. During the ad, a picture of Biden with his son Hunter flashes across the screen. The Trump campaign has often pointed to Hunter Biden's past business dealings in China as evidence of corruption. The same day that ad came out, a Democratic super PAC supporting Biden released this one.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everyone knew they lied about the virus.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: China.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: President Trump gave China his trust.
KHALID: And then the Biden campaign responded with an ad of its own, accusing the president of rolling over for the Chinese.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Trump praised the Chinese 15 times in January and February as the coronavirus spread across the world.
KHALID: The tit-for-tat is indicative of how central China is in this campaign. But perhaps more importantly, it shows how there seems to be bipartisan agreement that proving you're the strongest to take on China has political benefit. A recent report from the Pew Research Center finds that about two-thirds of Americans have a negative attitude toward China. That's higher than at any point since they began asking this question in 2005.
FRANK LUNTZ: The future is going to involve a lot of second-guessing about the relationship between the U.S. and China. That's clear.
KHALID: That's Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
LUNTZ: What people finally decide, who they trust more, I think that's up for grabs.
KHALID: We've heard a lot about China in recent presidential campaigns. But this year, Luntz feels, is different. He predicts China will be the second most important issue - second only to the handling of COVID-19. Many Democrats have praised Biden's response. They say his ad is a brilliant show of force. But the escalation of these ads worries Christine Chen. She leads APIAVote. It's a civic engagement group focused on Asian Americans.
CHRISTINE CHEN: The last six weeks, we've seen an increase of hate crimes, hate incidences, blaming of anyone that looks Asian or Chinese.
KHALID: Chen is concerned that both Biden and Trump's ads have exacerbated this environment. She doesn't think Biden was intending to be xenophobic.
CHEN: But at the same time, I think it was a misstep.
KHALID: In a statement, the Biden campaign defended its ad, saying it levels substantive criticism at Trump and that Biden has held Trump's feet to the fire over his use of xenophobic labels. There are a number of potent issues that relate to China for both candidates, and they're likely to define the campaign through November. Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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