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US elections 2020

Democrats' trade war: Sanders battles Biden over Asia deals

Presidential candidates sharply differ on US economic plan

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, left, and Joe Biden lock horns at a debate in Charleston, South Carolina on Feb. 25.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Joe Biden's resurgence in the race to become the Democratic presidential candidate has prompted his main rival, Bernie Sanders, to launch a trade offensive against the former vice president.

"One of us led the opposition to disastrous trade agreements, which cost us millions of good-paying jobs. That's me," Sanders said in a speech in his home state of Vermont after Biden gained ground in the Super Tuesday primaries. "And another candidate voted for disastrous trade agreements."

The 78-year-old senator was referring to Biden's vocal support for deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement that initially encompassed 12 Pacific Rim countries and was signed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat. His successor, Republican Donald Trump withdrew from the deal during his first month in office in January 2017.

A staunch advocate for U.S. workers, Sanders has been consistently opposed trade deals with Asian countries, having voted against extending permanent normal trade relations to China in the 1990s. The TPP has become increasingly unpopular in Washington, with both Trump's nationalist "America first" supporters on the right and backers of labor on the left.

While Biden had been seen as one of the most pro-free trade contenders in the previously crowded Democratic field, he has adjusted his positions, framing his foreign policy stance as geared toward the middle class.

Reflecting bipartisan distrust over tech giants such as Huawei Technologies, the 77-year-old Biden vowed in a recent Democratic debate that he would bar Chinese companies from building critical infrastructure in the U.S. He has also repeatedly blasted Beijing's Belt and Road initiative in Asia.

But his views on trade remain "mostly" unchanged, according to Jack Caporal, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Biden still "embraces a U.S.-led, rules-based international order with an emphasis on reducing trade barriers and setting global trade standards," Caporal said in a February paper.

The former vice president has lamented Trump's withdrawal from the TPP, saying last year that the deal "wasn't perfect, but the idea behind it was a good one."

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order at the White House pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on Jan. 23, 2017.    © AP

When it comes to Sino-American relations, a Biden presidency "is going to be much more comparable to the status quo under Obama, and Sanders would [represent] more of a change," said Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.

The loss of American jobs to China has been recurrent theme in Sanders' campaign.

"Over the last 30 years, the establishment has pushed unfettered free trade," the Vermont senator tweeted on Saturday, "which says to American workers: You now need to compete against somebody in China who makes $1.50/hour. If you don't like it, we are going to move our plant to China. Do we think that is right? I don't."

But while the rush toward economic decoupling may slow under the more corporations-friendly Biden, Beijing might not favor the former vice president in the White House "because of the damage Trump has done to the American alliance system."

"For a politician more adroit with diplomacy," Stone Fish said referring to Biden, "it will be certainly easier to stitch together an alliance that Beijing will see as anti-China, and that's far more worrying to them than Americans going it alone."

Biden was, however, the first leading U.S. politician to have sought a "personal relationship" with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In 2011, he traveled to Beijing to get to know Xi, who was then vice president.

Last May, Biden downplayed China's economic rivalry with the U.S.

Hu Xinjin, editor-in-chief of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times, gave the former vice president qualified praise, mentioning Biden's "noodle diplomacy" in 2011, when he ate at a no-frills restaurant in Beijing specializing in pork liver and tripe dishes.

"For someone who has eaten chaogan [fried pork liver] on the streets of Beijing, Biden still harbors an enormous amount of prejudice against China," Hu wrote in a Weibo post in May. "But at least he knows one thing: the threat of China is not what the Republican government has made it out to be."

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