By Bob Davis and Josh Zumbrun
This article is part of a Wall Street Journal guide comparing
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on
issues from climate change to health care and jobs.
WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump's election in 2016 led to the biggest
shift in U.S. trade policy since World War II, as he piled on
tariffs and eschewed alliance-building. A win by Joe Biden could
reverse direction again.
The former vice president and Democratic challenger says he will
woo allies battered by Trump trade sanctions, rethink the use of
tariffs and try to create a united front to confront China.
The incumbent Republican says tariffs are his favorite weapon
and he has used them effectively to bend China, Mexico and other
nations to America's will. At a meeting with conservative activists
last year, he called tariffs "the greatest negotiating tool in the
history of our country."
The Biden campaign says the president has misused the weapon by
acting unilaterally. "Common sense tells us we need more steady and
serious uses of leverage than threats and bullying," says Jake
Sullivan, Mr. Biden's senior policy adviser.
Can't Avoid China
Mr. Biden wants to de-emphasize trade policy, saying he won't
sign new trade deals until he has given the middle class a
substantial lift. But China won't wait.
As president, he would inherit tariffs on roughly three-quarters
of everything China sells to the U.S., plus a Phase One trade deal
with ambitious Chinese purchase commitments that he would need to
Already corporate lobbyists are advising Biden campaign
officials that slashing some of the tariffs would encourage China
to work with a Biden administration on other priorities, such as
climate change or pressuring Iran over nuclear weapons.
Mr. Biden is keeping his options open. He plans to consult with
allies on a common approach toward China, said Mr. Sullivan. "Then
he would make a determination of the best way to go forward with
the leverage we currently have," he said -- meaning a Biden
administration might keep tariffs or might roll them back depending
on the joint strategy.
But any attempt to eliminate tariffs could meet with opposition
among congressional Democrats who are as hawkish on China as their
"I'll work closely with a Biden administration to review the
tariffs, one-by-one," says Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat
on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees trade policy. "But
when you have trade cheats ripping off American workers, you use
every tool in the toolbox, including tariffs."
In one important area, Mr. Biden, congressional Democrats and
Mr. Trump are in sync -- trying to limit the rise of Chinese
They view China's tech giants as threats to their U.S. rivals --
and as vehicles for espionage. In words similar to President
Trump's, Mr. Biden complains of Beijing ripping off American
Should Mr. Trump win re-election, his top officials say, expect
him to exert ever-increasing pressure on Beijing. During his four
years in office, the U.S.-China trade war morphed into a technology
war and now has reached deeply into areas of national security.
Trade policy remains a favored tool for Mr. Trump to punish
Beijing over human-rights and national-security issues. The
Commerce Department has placed 300 Chinese companies so far on a
blacklist -- half of them affiliates of Huawei Technologies Co. --
limiting their purchases because of issues ranging from technology
theft to espionage to human-rights abuses in Xinjiang province.
Recently, the president raised the prospect of "decoupling" from
China -- meaning separating the two economies, although he hasn't
said how far he wants to go. Don't dismiss that as campaign
rhetoric, says a senior administration official, who expects a
series of meetings and phone calls with the president to hammer out
John Bolton, Mr. Trump's former national security adviser, is
skeptical that the tough talk and actions will survive the campaign
if Chinese leader Xi Jinping expresses interest in a follow-up
Others say Mr. Trump could use a second term to reopen talks
toward a new trade deal, which could help ease strained relations
between Washington and Beijing.
"Trump has proven able to reverse himself," says Gary Hufbauer,
a trade expert at the free-trade Peterson Institute for
Tariffs Here to Stay
The president wasn't exaggerating in 2018 when he called himself
"Tariff Man." Trade experts say no president since the 1930s has
used tariffs as extensively as Mr. Trump.
Even trade deals don't exempt U.S. trading partners. Despite
negotiating a pact with Mexico, Mr. Trump vowed fresh tariffs
unless Mexico curbed immigration and, recently, limited exports of
strawberries and bell peppers.
A second Trump administration is bound to rely heavily on
tariffs. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer proposes that
the country equalize tariffs with its trading partners across the
board. Given that U.S. tariffs are generally lower, that could mean
"The notion that we're locked into [commitments on tariffs] that
says just forever you're stuck with that imbalance is, to me,
crazy," he told the Senate Finance Committee in June.
Mr. Biden also would use tariffs, but for different ends,
especially the environment. He is calling for "carbon adjustment
fees" -- a fancy term for tariffs -- and quotas on imports from
nations that don't meet climate targets.
"Once you take serious action on climate, you have to have a way
to deal with other countries that might seek a race to the bottom,"
says Mr. Sullivan, the Biden adviser, noting that the concept has
supporters in Europe too.
Allies or Adversaries?
Perhaps the biggest difference between a second Trump term and a
Biden administration would be trade relations with U.S. allies. Mr.
Biden's advisers say his administration would consult with allies
before acting on trade, especially when it comes to China.
"A unilateral approach leaves leverage on the table," says Mr.
Sullivan. "It's better to be pulling together a range of
like-minded economies. That's how you get real leverage."
But multilateralism also presents the Biden camp with some tough
trade-offs. European countries are bound to demand a lifting of
steel tariffs imposed by Mr. Trump and backed by Mr. Biden's labor
Some trade experts think the former vice president could craft a
compromise by scrapping the tariffs but helping the steel industry
through new "Buy America" rules that require domestic steel
production. A Biden adviser declined to comment on the
Mr. Biden has also dangled the possibility that he would join a
trade pact among 11 Pacific Rim nations, once called the
Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr. Trump scrapped on his first
working day in office. The former vice president said he would
renegotiate the agreement first.
"A time-tested Democratic strategy," says William Reinsch, a
former Clinton administration trade official, would be to "declare
the existing agreement unsatisfactory, negotiate some minor
changes, and declare it fixed."
Mr. Lighthizer, the president's top trade adviser, contends the
TPP would give China a way to dominate the U.S. automobile market
because it would be able to sell auto parts to Japan and other TPP
members, which would then ship fully assembled cars to the U.S.
He also pushes back against the idea that the U.S. is a lone
wolf on trade, pointing to discussions with the European Union and
Japan over a common approach toward China, although that effort has
produced few concrete results. "We work with allies, but we don't
let them veto doing things," he said last year.
The difference in approach plays out at the World Trade
Organization, where the Trump administration has crippled the WTO's
ability to referee trade disputes by blocking the appointment of
A Biden adviser says the former vice president would end the
blockade, stressing Mr. Biden's plan to work with allies. The
future of the WTO won't win either presidential contestant many
votes, but it is effectively on the ballot in November.
Write to Bob Davis at email@example.com and Josh Zumbrun at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 26, 2020 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.