Biden's 'Buy America'" Plan Echoes Trump, But Puts China in its Crosshairs

On the surface, Joe Biden appears to be co-opting President Donald Trump's economic plan with his "Buy American" plan and his tough talk on reducing the country's reliance on Chinese goods.

In fact, Trump has accused the Biden team of plagiarism this month because of the focus on domestic production and revitalizing American manufacturing.

If Biden wins, he'll likely pick up where Trump left off. But the similarities stop there.

"The difference you are going to see is in the manner in which Biden goes about confronting and trying to contain China, not the degree to which they are pursuing this ongoing decoupling from the Chinese economy," said Jon Lieber, the managing director for the U.S. at Eurasia Group and former director at the National Economic Council at the White House.

Newsweek subscription offers >

During his rollercoaster relationship with China, Trump has tried to strong-arm Beijing, levying tariffs in a trade war and intensifying pressure on it as the coronavirus, which originated in China, swept the globe and the two powers jockeyed for world dominance.

"President Trump is the first president with a backbone to stand up to China, call them out on the world stage, and hold them accountable for their nefarious dealings while Joe Biden has spent his entire career appeasing Beijing and expanding American reliance on the communist nation," deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso said.

Trump also has maintained the U.S. could not risk dependence on China and vowed to decouple the two economies—a dicey and controversial proposition.

"If this wasn't an election year, then I don't think we'd be seeing a lot of what's been happening recently. Put simply, Trump wants to win, and talk of decoupling—whether it actually happens or not—is a new iteration of his 2016 campaign promise," said Thomas Shattuck, a research associate and managing editor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Newsweek subscription offers >

Biden's record as a legislator and vice president, however, provides a roadmap for how he would approach the communist world power and competitor. Five decades ago, when Richard Nixon first reached out to China in 1972, Biden had just been elected as a senator. He made his first trip to China in 1979 as part of the first delegation to meet after normalization relations with the country, which he called an "absolutely remarkable transformation" at the opening session of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue in 2011 as vice president.

His comments, coming nine years ago, stand in stark contrast to the Trump administration's view of China: "As a young member of a Foreign Relations Committee, I wrote and I said and I believed then what I believe now," he said at the time. "That a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large."

This view was clear for all to see as the Obama administration pursued a strategy of "returning to the Asia Pacific," which was shifting its focus from Europe to Asia. This "rebalancing" included deploying military assets to the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal—which excluded China and Trump pulled the U.S. out of—and a strategy of using allies to thwart Beijing.

As a coalition-builder, Biden is likely to bolster his tough talk by strengthening alliances of countries willing to challenge China, which has seen its favorability drop again in the U.S. because of the coronavirus. In fact, one aim of Biden's economic proposal is to reduce dependence on foreign goods—an issue that has come to the forefront amid health product shortages during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Vice President Biden's Made in America plan will help reshore supply chains so that we are never again dependent on China in a crisis," Biden senior advisor Jake Sullivan told Newsweek.

Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Biden during his tenure as vice president, and an advisor who worked for months on his economic plans has his doubts about decoupling, no matter who does it: "Frankly, I'm not even sure what it means in economic terms given the extent of global integration," he told Newsweek.

Biden's plan features $700 billion in federal procurement of goods made in the U.S. It also calls for $300 million in technology investments, focusing on research and development in the same sectors as China, including clean energy, telecommunications and next-generation computing.

In a speech last week outlining his economic proposal, Biden said that China couldn't "afford to ignore half the global economy if we're united. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the future rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor to trade to technology to transparency."

Biden, experts who spoke with Newsweek said, appears ready to use the leverage rather than hardline tactics to maintain the lead in the global economy.

Unlike Trump, Sullivan said, Biden "will make Buy American real, rather than rhetorical." For example, he said, the rate of federal contractors sending jobs offshore more than doubled under the Trump administration. Biden's plan includes $300 billion over four years to accelerate investment in research and development because it says China is on track to surpass the U.S. in R&D by 2020. It would also "crack down on companies that label products as Made in America even if they're coming from China."

Bernstein told Newsweek that Biden's Buy American and U.S. investment plans do nothing to shut down global trade, calling it "an ongoing reality of advanced economies with many positive attributes."

"Neither does it cave to this notion that because of globalization and automation we just need to give up on factories, clean energy, and so on," he said.

In contrast to Trump, who has used his bully pulpit to call out China and has distanced himself from some American allies, Bernstein said Biden envisions working more closely with allies to fight "unfair competitive practices, currency misalignment, and global warming."

"If you look at his long political career he's long been comfortable with coalitions of our allies," he said.

While he now calls China's President Xi Jinping a "thug" without a Democratic bone in his body—as he did during a primary debate—Biden voted in favor of normalizing trade relations with the country in 2000, which led China to join the World Trade Organization.

He is expected to return foreign policy to a multilateral order by creating coalitions to attempt to box China into a corner. Experts say the strategy would likely involve aligning allies, working through the WTO and the United Nations.

"Biden will try to build a team and the reality is there is a huge number of other countries that have exactly the same problems with China as we do," said William Reinsch, a senior adviser and trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

biden economy
Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden gives a speech to workers after touring McGregor Industries in Dunmore, Pennsylvania on July 9, 2020. TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP/Getty
Biden's 'Buy America'" Plan Echoes Trump, But Puts China in its Crosshairs | U.S.