MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President-elect Biden says he wants to change the bitter relationship between the United States and China, the world's two economic superpowers. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports the difference between Biden's approach and Trump's approach to trade with China may be more about style than substance.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Before Trump came along, no president had ever talked about China the way he did. China, he says, has gutted American industries and stolen hundreds of thousands of good factory jobs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what they're doing. It's the greatest theft in the history of the world.
ZARROLI: And Trump followed up the tough talk with lots of tariffs, which are a tax on Chinese imports. Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics says these tariffs have made all kinds of Chinese-made products, from shoes to auto parts, more expensive for Americans. And they've done little to bring back factory jobs. But he says they've had an undeniable impact; the U.S.-China relationship is as acrimonious as it's been in decades.
CHAD BOWN: I think the continued inflammatory rhetoric that President Trump has used toward China has basically made it impossible for any administration to come in and immediately change course.
ZARROLI: Now that course will be set by President-elect Joe Biden. Throughout his campaign, Biden frequently attacked Trump for his go-it-alone approach to China. Only by banding together with allies in Europe and Asia, he says, can the United States really force Beijing to change.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: If we don't set the rules, we, in fact, are going to find ourselves with China setting the rules. And that's why you need to organize the world to take on China to stop the corrupt practices that are underway.
ZARROLI: But Biden has made clear he's no friend of China either. As a senator, Biden voted to allow China into the World Trade Organization in 2003, which helped fuel China's incredible rise as a manufacturing superpower. But America's mood has changed enormously since then. Trump has been able to capitalize on a deep skepticism about China in both parties, says Georgetown University's Arthur Dong.
ARTHUR DONG: This is a very real concern, you know, as a result of job loss and plant closure, particularly in those hard-hit Midwestern states. Biden, I think, is very well aware of that.
ZARROLI: While Biden can reverse Trump's tariffs with the stroke of a pen, Dong says he's unlikely to do so, at least right away. Dong does believe there will be a change in tone. Trump populated his administration with harsh China critics, such as trade adviser Peter Navarro, author of incendiary books such as "Death By China." And Dong says that angered and alienated Beijing.
DONG: So I think that'll be a refreshing change in terms of at least getting both sides to the bargaining table.
ZARROLI: But once at the bargaining table, the two sides will have some serious disagreements over access to China's markets and its theft of intellectual property. So Dan Ikenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute says at the end of the day, don't expect Biden to chart a much different course on China than his predecessor did.
DAN IKENSON: Trump's trade policy has been defined by protectionism and cronyism and mean-spiritedness. I think President Biden's trade policy will be more polite.
ZARROLI: Trump's rhetoric may have been the equivalent of a diplomatic wrecking ball, but he also highlighted and brought into the open real differences between the two countries that aren't going away anytime soon.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRACE JONES' "PRIVATE LIFE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.