WASHINGTON — On a steamy August day along the Chinese coast, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. stepped off a minibus at a seaside compound for a series of unusual meetings with China’s Communist Party leaders.
At a lunch banquet, Mr. Biden and three other senators argued with Chinese officials about what the O.J. Simpson trial had revealed about the integrity of the U.S. legal system. When the senators met afterward with the party secretary, Jiang Zemin, they sparred over that and other thorny issues: missile technology proliferation, human rights and Taiwan.
But Mr. Biden, leading his first overseas trip as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also there in Beidaihe in 2001 to help usher in an important era in America’s relationship with China — the building of a commercial link that would allow the Communist nation entry into the World Trade Organization.
“The United States welcomes the emergence of a prosperous, integrated China on the global stage, because we expect this is going to be a China that plays by the rules,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Jiang, recalled Frank Jannuzi, the Senate aide who organized the trip and took notes at Mr. Biden’s side.
The senator traveled days later to a dirt-road village near the Great Wall. Seven thousand miles from Delaware, his adopted home state, Mr. Biden glad-handed bemused locals like a candidate, even taking communion from a Catholic priest. He returned to Washington seeing more promise than peril, offering reporters the same message he had delivered to Chinese leaders: The United States welcomed China’s emergence “as a great power, because great powers adhere to international norms in the areas of nonproliferation, human rights and trade.”
Two decades later, China has emerged as a great power — and, in the eyes of many Americans, a dangerous rival. Republicans and Democrats say it has exploited the global integration that Mr. Biden and many other officials supported.
The 2020 election has been partly defined by what much of Washington sees as a kind of new Cold War. And as Mr. Biden faces fierce campaign attacks from President Trump, his language on China points to a drastic shift in thinking.
Mr. Biden calls Xi Jinping, the authoritarian Chinese leader, a “thug.” He has threatened, if elected, to impose “swift economic sanctions” if China tries to silence American citizens and companies. “The United States does need to get tough on China,” he wrote this winter in an essay in Foreign Affairs. Mr. Biden now sees the country as a top strategic challenge, according to interviews with more than a dozen of his advisers and foreign policy associates, and his own words.
Mr. Biden’s 20-year road from wary optimism to condemnation — while still straining for some cooperation — is emblematic of the arc of U.S.-China relations, which have deteriorated to an unstable and potentially explosive state. But as Mr. Trump denounces the Washington establishment’s failures on China, Mr. Biden, an avatar of that establishment, is not recanting his past enthusiasm for engagement.
In a Foreign Affairs essay in 2018, two former Obama administration officials who advise Mr. Biden, Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, said Democratic and Republican administrations had both been guilty of fundamental policy missteps on China.
“Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community have remained deeply invested in expectations about China — about its approach to economics, domestic politics, security and global order — even as evidence against them has accumulated,” they wrote. “The policies built on such expectations have failed to change China in the ways we intended or hoped.”
While refraining from admitting fault in his previous views, Mr. Biden speaks these days not of transforming China but of restoring the United States, according to his policy statements and interviews with his aides. They say the United States must regain its role as a leader of liberal values and economic innovation, and that will give Washington the standing to rally like-minded nations to constrain China.
Among Mr. Biden’s priorities are rebuilding alliances and reasserting a global defense of democracy, which Mr. Trump has eroded, they say. Mr. Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic plan promotes investments in U.S. industries and research, partly to compete with China. And he sees some areas where Washington and Beijing can cooperate: climate change, health security and nonproliferation.
But relations are at their lowest point since the re-establishment of formal ties in 1979. Chinese officials have accelerated their authoritarian policies, and Beijing’s assertions of power in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and elsewhere are seen in Washington as open defiance.
While Trump administration hawks aim to set the two nations on a long-term course of confrontation, Mr. Trump himself vacillates wildly on China. He halted his damaging trade war this year, then called Mr. Xi “a very, very good friend” and expressed “much respect!” on Twitter. But Mr. Trump now talks angrily of the “China virus,” referring to the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr. Biden calls for a steadier approach, but he has no easy answers for how two superpowers with intertwined economies can deal with their ideological differences. In an interview in May with The New York Times, he said he met with Mr. Xi repeatedly in 2011 and 2012 to try to figure out whether it was possible to have “a competitive relationship with China without it being a bellicose relationship, without it being a relationship based on force.”
To Change China
Mr. Biden says he has had a “long interest in the evolving nature of the Chinese Communist Party” from his first visit to the country “as a kid in the Senate” in April 1979, as part of the first U.S. congressional delegation to the country since China’s Communist revolution in 1949. He met with the country’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, who was then beginning to transform China’s command economy with market reforms.
Hosting Chinese officials as the vice president in May 2011, Mr. Biden recalled that trip fondly. While acknowledging a “debate” on the question, he said he “believed then what I believe now: that a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”
But as the country boomed over the decades, Mr. Biden was also a frequent critic, especially on human rights.
Outraged by the 1989 crackdown against protesters around Tiananmen Square, he introduced legislation to create a federally funded news media network to promote democratic values within the country. Mr. Biden realized China was a “brutal system,” said James P. Rubin, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide who later served as a State Department spokesman. The station went online in 1996 as Radio Free Asia and operates to this day.
Mr. Biden also saw limits to what the United States could realistically demand. In 1991, as Congress debated granting China favored-nation trading status, he acknowledged the country had a “reprehensible” record on human rights and “unfair trade practices.” But he argued that the top priority for the United States was China’s sale of missiles to Iran and Syria, which could threaten Israel.
By the end of the decade, Republicans and a growing number of moderate Democrats were extolling the benefits of freer trade with China. When the Senate debated in September 2000 whether to end 20 years of annual reviews of China’s status and permanently normalize trade, paving the way for the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization, Mr. Biden was a strong supporter.
Like many others in Congress, he argued that China’s global integration might “influence the structure of their internal social, economic and political systems.” Permanently normalized trade, he said on the Senate floor, “continues a process of careful engagement designed to encourage China’s development as a productive, responsible member of the world community.” Mr. Biden also predicted that Delaware’s chemical and poultry industries would benefit, as well as General Motors and Chrysler, both of which operated major plants in the state.
On Sept. 19, 2000, the Senate approved the measure, 83 to 15. As in the House, much of the modest opposition centered on China’s record on human rights and workers’ rights.
Mr. Trump now calls China’s entry into the World Trade Organization “one of the greatest geopolitical and economic disasters in world history.”
But support for China’s membership was widespread at the time, including in corporations and the Republican Party. And excluding the world’s most populous nation from the international trade system might have led to worse outcomes, analysts say.
Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that if China had not joined the World Trade Organization, the United States could have still lost manufacturing jobs to other countries as global trade and automation increased.
“It’s not obvious to me that if China hadn’t been allowed in, that things would have developed in the U.S. differently,” he said.
The United States also exacted a heavy price for China’s membership, far higher than for any other country that had joined the group thus far. China was forced to lower its high tariffs, alter thousands of laws and regulations, and adopt policies to open up markets.
But over the decades, China disappointed hopes for a broader transformation. State-owned enterprises strengthened their control of strategic industries, officials coerced technology transfer from foreign companies or outright stole corporate secrets, and the Communist Party limited the development of an independent judiciary. As its economy became stronger, China’s political system became less free.
Some Democrats say President George W. Bush neglected China during a crucial period. As Beijing pushed forward with its economic opening, Mr. Bush — along with most American policymakers, including Mr. Biden — remained consumed with the Middle East and Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Many American companies and consumers did benefit from the trade, but in parts of the country — especially in the industrial states that helped elect Mr. Trump in 2016 — shuttered factories and exported jobs produced fury at both Beijing and Washington.
Between 1999 and 2011, competition from China cost the United States more than 2 million factory jobs, according to academic research. In the midst of that, flaws in the U.S. financial system set off a global economic crisis. In 2008 and 2009, as Mr. Biden took the reins of the second most powerful office in the United States, the major G.M. and Chrysler plants in his state shuttered.
Basketball and Battleships
At the end of his first term, President Barack Obama rolled out an ambitious shift in U.S. foreign policy, moving diplomatic and military resources from the Middle East to Asia, mainly to address the challenge of China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “pivot,” and Mr. Obama said “the United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” He put Marines in Australia and tried forging a trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim nations that was implicitly aimed at countering China.
Mr. Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who helped organize the trips, recalled that Mr. Biden had ended up judging Mr. Xi as tough and unsentimental, someone who questioned American power and believed in the superiority of the Communist Party. In a White House meeting, he said, Mr. Biden told advisers, “I think we’ve got our hands full with this guy.”
Mr. Xi and other Chinese officials saw the pivot as Cold War-style containment. And in 2013, they started bolstering territorial and maritime claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea, which the U.S. military dominates. Mr. Biden supported the administration’s decision to fly U.S. bombers and sail warships through the zones, and he told Mr. Xi of Washington’s growing anger. The old relationship was fading.
“I wanted to make it clear that as long as they played by a set of basic international rules that were written, and he did not like the fact he didn’t write them — they didn’t write them — we’d have no problem,” Mr. Biden said in his interview with The Times. “But to the extent they tried to fundamentally alter the rules of airspace and seaspace, what constitutes freedom of navigation, et cetera, then we’d have a problem.”
A Kettle of Hawks
Seventy-five Republican national security specialists, some of whom had worked for Mr. Trump, released a letter endorsing Mr. Biden. They asserted that Mr. Trump “lacks the character and competence to lead this nation and has engaged in corrupt behavior.”
The writers mentioned two episodes from Mr. Trump’s relationship with Mr. Xi: when he called on the Chinese leader last year to “start an investigation” into Mr. Biden and when he praised Mr. Xi as a “brilliant leader” — an example of Mr. Trump cozying up to dictators. The letter echoed recent devastating accounts, including from John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, who called Mr. Trump’s approach to China haphazard and based on self-interest rather than the national interest.
That message dovetailed with Mr. Biden’s: that Mr. Trump’s supposed toughness on China was a mirage. The Biden campaign has hammered the president over his response to the coronavirus, running advertisements reminding voters that Mr. Trump praised Mr. Xi’s handling of the pandemic. And Mr. Biden has said that Mr. Trump’s trade deal with China is “failing.”
Mr. Biden’s attempts to out-hawk Mr. Trump have prompted some blowback: Some Asian-Americans have criticized his anti-China advertisements as racist. And progressive critics of American power say Mr. Biden is perpetuating misguided ideas of U.S. superiority.
But Mr. Biden is under political pressure to look tough. A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, the highest in at least 15 years. More than half see China as a competitor.
With his trade proposals, Mr. Biden has tried to bridge the views between the Democratic Party’s center and its left wing, led by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. That has sometimes resulted in ambiguity. Mr. Biden has not committed to removing Mr. Trump’s tariffs on China; his aides say he would first review how they affect the American middle class.
Mr. Biden has also held back from promising to have the United States enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, despite Mr. Obama’s efforts, failed to gain enough support among Americans partly because of opposition from labor unions and progressive Democratic politicians. Japan helped finalize the agreement.
Some of Mr. Biden’s ideas echo those of Trump officials, including incentives to move important corporate supply chains out of China. He envisions using the federal government’s purchasing power, through “Buy American plans,” to bolster manufacturing of critical goods like pharmaceuticals at home.
But while Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders call for punishing China, Mr. Biden’s aides emphasize a restoration of U.S. domestic strength. Speaking in June at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jake Sullivan, one of Mr. Biden’s top advisers, said the United States “should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves.” Aides say that includes making investments in scientific research and emerging U.S. industries, as well as restoring alliances abroad.
On human rights, Mr. Biden insists China must pay a price. A campaign spokesman said in August that Mr. Biden believed the Chinese government was committing “genocide” against ethnic Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Mr. Biden says he will impose sanctions and commercial restrictions on Chinese officials and entities responsible for repression. While the Trump administration has recently sanctioned companies and individuals involved in Xinjiang, Mr. Trump had previously encouraged Mr. Xi to keep building internment camps there, Mr. Bolton wrote, and to handle pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in his own way.
Mr. Biden plans to try to win China’s cooperation on issues like climate change, Iran and North Korea. But that could be a challenge if Trump administration hawks succeed in hard-wiring hostility into the relationship. And regardless, every interaction with China, Mr. Campbell said, was a negotiation in which Chinese officials tried to find a source of leverage, “even when it’s something that’s in their mutual interest, like climate change.”
In the past few years, China has lost the benefit of the doubt among Mr. Campbell and other key Biden advisers, all Obama administration veterans who are likely to hold important government posts if Mr. Biden wins.
In their 2018 essay, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Ratner urged “doing away with the hopeful thinking” of the past. Mr. Sullivan, Antony J. Blinken and Jeffrey Prescott, all members of Mr. Biden’s inner circle, agree on the need to confront China on bad behavior. Susan Rice and Samantha Power, often mentioned as potential candidates for secretary of state, denounce Beijing’s atrocities on ethnic Uighurs and repression in Hong Kong.
“They’ll use carrots and sticks and pressure and reassurance to negotiate with the Chinese side,” said Susan L. Shirk, a China scholar at the University of California, San Diego, and a State Department official under President Bill Clinton. “I don’t think they’ll shy away from imposing costs.”
One thing is clear: If Mr. Biden becomes president, his 40-year association with China will reach a crescendo. Analysts on both sides of the Pacific say greater conflict may be inevitable, given the two nations’ ideological systems, nationalist sentiments and trajectories — one a superpower on the ascent, the other trying to preserve its reach. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said his nation rejected a “new Cold War,” but he emphasized that “the United States must abandon its fantasy of remodeling China to U.S. needs.”
Mr. Wang’s words have added resonance as Mr. Biden and his fellow policymakers wrestle with their earlier mission of trying to transform China. Even on his 2001 trip, Mr. Biden heard a similar message about the limits of American agency when he tried to highlight democratic ideals in a discussion with about 40 graduate students at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask students of China,” Mr. Biden said, according to Mr. Jannuzi, who is now the president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. “The students of Tiananmen Square, were they patriots or traitors to the People’s Republic of China?”
There was silence. Then, a physics student, a scholar of Newton and Einstein, stood up.
“The students of Tiananmen were heroes of the People’s Republic of China,” he said. “Senator, change will come to China. But it will be we, the students of Newton, who determine the pace and the direction of that change, and not you or anyone else working on the banks of the Potomac.”