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The current US president, Joe Biden, has spent his first term talking about the need to use American democracy as a counterweight to autocracy in China, among other countries. Biden called out Chinese President Xi Jinping by name in his State of the Union address earlier this year as he slammed autocracies.
“Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping. Name me one!” Biden said, ad-libbing in the House chamber in his February address.
How about the former US president, Donald Trump, who is desperately trying to become a world leader once again?
Trump has spoken with clear envy for Xi’s iron-handed ability to extend his presidency for the foreseeable future.
“He’s now president for life,” Trump said during a speech to donors at Mar-a-Lago back in 2018. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
For all the difference in their rhetoric, however, it’s striking that there is a throughline between Trump’s and Biden’s China policy. Trump amped up US support for Taiwan, which Biden has continued. Trump engineered tariffs on Chinese imports that complicated the US relationship with China. Biden has notably left them in place.
A new fentanyl deal
The Biden administration is on the cusp of a new deal in which China would agree to crack down on the export of ingredients used to make fentanyl, known as precursors, which find their way from China to Mexico and ultimately devastate US communities.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Trump administration also reached a deal with China to schedule fentanyl and its derivatives as a controlled substance. That earlier deal, agreed to over a steak dinner shared by Trump and Xi in Buenos Aires, according to CNN’s report at the time, didn’t stop the flow of fentanyl into the US.
Seeking competition, not conflict
Biden is set to meet with Xi Wednesday outside San Francisco on the sidelines of a larger meeting of Asia-Pacific nations, and the main goal of the four-hour meeting, according to the US president, is to get the two countries “back on a normal course” and “being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another.”
That’s a particularly important goal at a time when two wars – the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the Israel-Hamas war – make the post-World War II international order feel flimsy. A key reason Biden has cited for supporting Ukraine against Russia is to deter countries outside Europe, who are watching.
Support for Taiwan complicates relationship with China
Biden has vocally supported Taiwan, a democratic island that the Communist leadership in Beijing has long claimed as part of its territory, despite having never controlled it.
Biden has repeatedly teased that the US would offer military support in the event of a Chinese invasion, abandoning the long-time principle of strategic ambiguity by which the US offered support for Taiwan while attempting not to anger China on the topic.
As president, Trump supported Taiwan in numerous ways, but there is some indication he could return to a more strategically ambiguous position. Over the summer, Trump complained on Fox News that Taiwan “took all of our chip business,” referring to semiconductors, and he would not say how the US should defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese action against the island.
The semiconductor issue is important domestically. Biden has pushed the CHIPS and Science Act, a bipartisan law to prop up the US semiconductor industry and bring new manufacturing jobs.
No military communication for more than a year
The more intentional and public support for Taiwan under the Trump and Biden administrations has had an effect. The Chinese military cut off normal contacts with its American counterparts after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. Now the US wants to bring down the temperature a bit.
“The US and China are in competition,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday, adding that Biden wants to “manage that competition responsibly, so it doesn’t tip over into conflict.”
Specifically getting the militaries talking again is an important step, he said.
Talking is a nice thing, The Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin said on “CNN This Morning,” but it’s not exactly a major breakthrough.
“In terms of solving any of the problems in the US-China relationship, addressing China’s economic aggression, its military expansion, its internal repression, its problem with all of its other neighbors who will also be there in San Francisco – 20-something Asian countries – no, no real progress at all,” Rogin said. “So, yeah, talking is better than not talking.”
The countries, the world’s two largest economies, are importantly linked by trade, and that link is not coming to an end any time soon. In 2022, China was both the top exporter to the US and one of the top importers of US goods.
“We’re not trying to decouple from China,” Biden told reporters Tuesday. “What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better.”
Trump envies Xi
Trump, meanwhile, frequently brags about his personal relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The former president promised during an appearance in New Hampshire over the weekend that if he were reelected, he would be able to stave off World War III – an unprovable and ludicrous claim.
“President Xi in China controls 1.4 billion people in China with an iron hand,” Trump told supporters at the campaign event, praising Xi for his smarts and going on an extended riff about how the US should emulate China with abridged trials and a swift death penalty for drug dealers.
But given his failure to secure a lasting crackdown on fentanyl sourced from China, it’s notable that Trump’s respect for Xi is based on China’s attitude about drugs.
Set aside that Trump’s death penalty proposal for drug dealers is not new and is also in bizarre conflict with his First Step Act, his greatest bipartisan achievement as president, which lowered sentences for some drug traffickers.
Focus instead on his effusive praise for Xi.
“President Xi is like central casting. There’s nobody in Hollywood that can play the role of President Xi. The look, the strength, the voice,” Trump said. He lowered his voice in a strange emulation of the Chinese leader: “We will begin immediately negotiation.”
For all of their many differences, both Trump and Biden are known to prize personal contact even with world leaders they oppose. Biden will get that opportunity for the first time in a year with this meeting outside San Francisco.
It will be the first time Xi has visited the US since 2017, when Trump hosted Xi at Mar-a-Lago, a bizarre meeting when Trump told Xi about US missile strikes against Syria while the two ate chocolate cake.
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