US President Donald Trump faced repeated attacks over his China policy from his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, as the two candidates faced off on Tuesday night in a combative first presidential debate.
White House aides had publicly expressed hope that China would come up on Tuesday night because, in the words of spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany, “we have a strong record to stand on”.
When China did come up, however, Biden jumped at the opportunity to scrutinise that track record, accusing Trump of fawning over Chinese President Xi Jinping and pursuing a failed trade deal with Beijing.
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“He talks about the art of the deal – China’s perfected the art of the steal,” the former vice-president said of Trump. “We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before.”
The United States trade deficit – which Trump considers an indicator of economic weakness in contrast to the prevailing view of economists – is at its highest in 12 years. And as of July, the goods deficit with China was wider than it was four years ago, before Trump was elected.
China has accelerated the purchases of US goods under an incremental trade deal signed in January, yet remains far behind projected targets laid out in the agreement.
Trump, in turn, accused Biden of allowing China to take advantage of the US, recycling an unsubstantiated theory that the former vice-president was beholden to officials in Beijing because of his son’s prior business ventures in the country.
“China ate your lunch, Joe,” Trump said, appearing to refer to Biden’s eight-year tenure as vice-president.
Although not asked directly about China during the debate on Tuesday, US time (Wednesday morning in Asia) before a socially distanced audience of around 80 people in Cleveland, Ohio, both candidates proactively brought the subject of China up as they attacked each other on issues including economic policy and the coronavirus pandemic.
Early in the evening, Biden said Trump had downplayed the severity of the pandemic and had given undue praise to Xi about his government’s initial handling of the disease.
“He told us what a great job Xi was doing, he said we owe him a debt of gratitude for being so transparent with us,” said Biden, referring to comments Trump made in January.
Defending his administration’s response, Trump repeated claims that his ban against travel from China had averted 2 million deaths in the US, and wrongly accused Biden of having called those restrictions “xenophobic”.
Biden has previously accused Trump of “fearmongering” and “hysterical xenophobia” in his handling of the pandemic, but has not used such language to refer specifically to the travel ban, variations of which have been enacted by numerous countries around the world.
“I closed [the border] and you said: ‘He’s xenophobic, he’s a racist’,” said Trump, who later went on to describe the coronavirus as the “China plague”, language that rights groups and lawmakers say has contributed to a rise in anti-Asian racism in the US.
Days after the US coronavirus death toll broke the 200,000 mark, Trump cast doubt on other countries’ figures, including China, Russia and India.
Alongside numerous mentions of China, Tuesday’s debate, the first of three, was marked by prolific name-calling, repeated interruptions, and attempts – largely unsuccessful – by the moderator, Fox’s Chris Wallace, to keep the conversation on topic and within the bounds of debate rules.
Following one of many interruptions by Trump during a discussion about the Supreme Court, Biden at one point exclaimed: “Will you shut up, man? That is so unpresidential.”
“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown,” he said, before backtracking. “Excuse me, I mean with this person.”
In a CBS poll conducted soon after the debate finished, 48 per cent of people believed Biden had won the face-off, versus 41 per cent for Trump. More than two-thirds of people polled said they were left feeling “annoyed”, while a mere 17 per cent said they felt “informed”.
In contrast with Biden, who put campaigning on the back burner as he prepared intensively for the debate, Trump shunned any formal preparation for Tuesday’s head-to-head. The incumbent did a total of two hours of preparation, mostly consisting of short question-and-answer sessions with advisers, CNN reported.
Trump, who favours ad-libbed performances laden with tangents and personal attacks, accused Biden of taking performance-enhancing drugs ahead of the debate, while his campaign suggested that the Democrat would have answers fed to him through an earpiece.
Several times the Republican nominee sought to steer difficult conversations towards unrelated yet familiar territory.
Trump responded to comments by Biden about the United States’ rising coronavirus death toll with an attempt to question his challenger’s university qualifications. And later in the evening, as Biden talked of his late son, Beau, a military veteran, Trump gleefully pivoted to Biden’s other son, Hunter, who is a frequent target of the president’s attacks over his business dealings in China.
Both campaigns have sought to make their respective positions on Beijing prominent and distinguishing features of their platforms, even though China does not rank highly on the spectrum of concerns that voters hold.
In fact, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, China sits last of a list of registered voters’ priority issues, behind bread-and-butter concerns such as the economy, health care, taxes and education.
Yet Tuesday night saw the candidates refer to China in some way more than a dozen times.
The candidates’ jousting over China came as relations with the country flounder at their lowest point in decades, having been bruised by a trade war initiated by Trump in 2018, stand-offs over Chinese tech companies, human rights sanctions and tightening restrictions on foreign journalists and diplomats.
Before the debate, Trump’s outgoing envoy to Beijing had acknowledged that the administration’s punitive measures against the Chinese government had largely failed to bring reciprocity to the bilateral relationship.
“The unfortunate thing is we’re trying to rebalance the relationship so we have fairness and reciprocity, but every time we do something, they keep it unbalanced,” Terry Branstad said in an interview with Associated Press on Tuesday.
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This article US election: Trump and Biden attack each other’s record on China in appeal to voters during first debate first appeared on South China Morning Post