SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Breakingviews) - For Democrats running in the 2020 presidential election, China is the elephant in the room. White House contenders touted better healthcare access, immigration reform and college aid in their first debates. Donald Trump’s trade war with Beijing was only briefly discussed. It’s an awkward topic as many agree with the commander-in-chief.
China taking advantage of America through trade and other means was a big theme in the 2016 race. Then, Republican Donald Trump and Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, who is again running for president, railed against the country for stealing American jobs and racking up a nearly $350 billion trade deficit with the United States that year.
In the 2020 race, what has not been said has been more telling. Despite Trump’s plan to meet Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to possibly restart talks on tariffs over coming days, trade was not a topic in the first debate for 10 candidates on Wednesday, though several named China as the biggest geopolitical threat to America. In Thursday’s debate with the second batch of 10 candidates, only one question focused on China, with businessman Andrew Yang and a few others criticizing U.S. levies on Chinese imports.
That’s because the hardline the president has taken with Beijing is one area of common ground. Senator Elizabeth Warren has supported tariffs on Chinese imports. Sanders has said he would renegotiate trade deals and label the People’s Republic a currency manipulator, something the president has also vowed but has not yet done.
Democrats have even pressed Trump to be tougher. They worry, along with Republicans, that the president could ease up on telecommunications firm Huawei as part of a trade deal. Fearing back doors that would allow Beijing to spy on U.S. communications, the government has banned firms from selling American-made products to the group.
Still, neither Warren, Sanders nor other candidates have made dealing with China, one of the biggest issues facing the current administration, a significant part of their platform. Frontrunner Joe Biden, the former vice president, went as far as to downplay China as a competitive threat, before backtracking after Trump criticized him.
Beijing shouldn’t mistake the silence for softness, though. Democrats may be reluctant to back Trump, but America’s tough stance is unlikely to ease no matter who is in the White House.
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