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Opinion

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are competing to see who is harshest on China

Beijing-bashing a disaster for US so Biden must avoid Trump's strategic mistakes

| China
Americans might consider why Xi Jinping seems to fear Joe Biden more than another four years of Trump.   © Reuters

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

The U.S. election is shaping up as a contest between which candidate hates China more: President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden?

For now, the advantage is Trump's, who on Tuesday ended Hong Kong's special status with the U.S., which allowed the city direct access to key U.S. sectors like technology and defense. He also signed legislation requiring sanctions against Chinese officials involved in Beijing's crackdown in the former British colony and the banks they deal with.

Trump's actions demonstrate the extent to which November 3 will be a race to the bottom to see who can be harsher toward China. Your move, Joe.

The central question for this election should be who has the best plan to keep the U.S. on top of the great power struggle. Americans trying to decide might consider why China's President Xi Jinping seems to fear Biden more than another four years of Trump.

Xi's Chinese Communist Party loathes the trade war, the Twitter tantrums and Trump's racist remarks about the coronavirus' origins. But the more Trump damages America's global standing, the closer China is to realizing its hegemonic aspirations.

In sharp contrast, a Biden presidency promises a return to the Democratic Party's traditional approach toward Beijing. That means using a multilateral approach that puts human rights, environmental concerns and government censorship at the front end of trade talks, not as retaliatory cudgels to bash China.

Xi's party, remember, rejoiced in 2017 when Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. TPP grouped 12 nations in a shared desire to curb China's fast-growing influence. By reneging on the deal, Trump made Xi's year.

Targeting China may be great politics, but Biden must not overplay his hand. He is not an economic guru. Foreign policy is his comfort zone and he will need some semblance of a relationship for his approach to work.

To be sure, Trump is almost certain to go down in history as a bottom-three U.S. president, if not the worst. While historians tend to focus on his corruption, lies and dreadful COVID-19 response, Trump's ceding the future to China merits consideration as his biggest blunder.

Just as North Korea has more nuclear weapons now than when Trump first slapped Kim Jong Un's back in person, Xi used Trumpian chaos to raise China's clout. While Trump talked about coal, forced Detroit to make less fuel-efficient cars and wrecked Washington's balance sheet, Beijing invested trillions in artificial intelligence, microprocessors, renewable energy, robotics and self-driving vehicles.

Xi used Trumpian chaos to raise China's clout.   © Reuters

Biden's Asia policies would be infinitely less terrible -- and far less damaging to Asia's development prospects. Yet Biden's strategy has its blinders.

The good news: Biden would reengage the world. He would keep the U.S. in the World Health Organization and reenter the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. He would reach out to the remaining 11 TPP nations to revive a deal China hoped would stay dead. Odds are, Biden would lobby Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, New Delhi, Seoul and others to join the pact.

Yet Biden risks repeating Trump's mistake of losing sight of the bigger picture when it comes to dealing with an ascendant China.

There were few surprises in recommendations made in a joint report by Biden and progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden's desire to rebuild U.S. supply chains and promote buy-American procurement policies seem more aspirational than actionable. Doing so, after all, would irk Japan, the EU and other key U.S. allies. It would risk a rebuke from the World Trade Organization while raising costs for Americans.

Here lies the risk of a Trump-Biden race to the bottom. Trump's efforts to color his opponent as soft on China clearly pushed the Biden campaign's efforts to out China-bash Trump.

China deserves it, too. Xi's chilling clampdown on Hong Kong, his exploits in the South China Sea, his appalling treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang and clampdowns on the media have won Beijing little goodwill. A Group of Seven nation like the U.S. should help to ensure the world's second-biggest economy plays by the rules.

Biden's team must understand that returning to a multilateralist approach will not boost productivity and innovation among U.S. companies. It will not help Silicon Valley relocate its innovative mojo. America's tech giants once disrupted society with game-changing gadgets. Nowadays, they mostly exist to devise better ways to sell internet ads. Nor will it increase America's stable of tech unicorns.

Taking on China alone will not build American economic muscle nor will it suddenly restore the manufacturing sector to its 1980s heyday or end the struggle to compete with Asia's low wages. It will not magically improve crumbling infrastructure nor reduce inequality or improve the education system.

So will building a more equitable and collaborative trade relationship with China. Trump's approach has been starting economic food fights. A President Biden will have to work with Xi, not just hurl platitudes. As an American, I for one hope he gets the chance.

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