Top Democratic presidential candidates have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of trade negotiations with China, accusing him of bumbling the fraught talks and sending mixed signals about Washington's interests.
But that does not mean Beijing would find a more pliable negotiating partner in a Democratic administration.
Democratic front-runner Joe Biden frames the contest with China as primarily over who writes the rules of the global economy, a point Trump often makes in defending his trade war with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"We make up 25% of the world economy," said Biden during the Sept. 12 debate in Houston, Texas. "If we don't set the rules, we, in fact, are going to find ourselves with China setting the rules. And that's why you need to organize the world to take on China, to stop the corrupt practices that are under way."
Even fierce critics of the president, such as billionaire investor George Soros, say Trump's approach to China represents a rare Washington consensus.
"The greatest — and perhaps only — foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping 's China," Soros wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Popular political stance
Trump has long argued that Chinese trade policies have disadvantaged American businesses. That message helped him win the presidency, and many of his challengers have taken note.
"I think the bipartisanship on China is driven by the result of the 2016 election, where Trump's surprise victory is seen by all as possibly due to his China trade stance," said Washington-based American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Derek Scissors.
But Scissors added that the Democrats appear to split into two camps: those who largely agree with Trump but do not want to say so, and those emphasizing working with allies but providing no details, "which translates to doing nothing."
Scissors views senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang in the first camp.
They strongly oppose Trump on many issues and "don't want to be grouped with him," Scissors said. He saw Biden, senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and former housing secretary Julian Castro falling into the second camp during the third Democratic presidential debate last Thursday.
On her campaign website, Harris said the U.S. should confront China's unfair trade practices when working with allies, but not unilaterally.
"We've got a guy in the White House who has been erratic on trade policy. He conducts trade policy by tweet," said Harris during the latest debate.
Sanders said Trump has relied for too long on only tariffs to influence trade relations with China.
"That is one tool that you have. What the president is doing is totally irrational, and it is destabilizing the entire world economy," said Sanders when asked about the imposition of tariffs against Chinese goods in an Aug. 25 interview with CNN.
"So, Trump, obviously, hasn't a clue. Trump thinks that trade policy is a tweet at 3 o'clock in the morning," Sanders said during last week's debate.
Warren has told media in interviews that tariffs are one tool the U.S. can use, but she also warned against doing the "tariff negotiation by tweet."
"The Chinese are bad actors on trade," Warren said in Kermit, West Virginia, in May. "But that means that our best way to fight back is with strength and with a coherent plan. Not with chaos."
Although all Democrats criticize how Trump has conducted the trade talks, none of the main group of front-runners, such as Buttigieg, propose repealing the tariffs.
Last Thursday, Buttigieg said, "I would have a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage."
Yang said he "would not repeal the tariffs on Day One" but would come up with a plan to address critical issues, such as pushing back against intellectual property theft.
One significant change in a Democratic administration would likely be the elevation of human rights issues in the China talks. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized China's treatment of minority Muslim Uighurs, the Trump administration has not made an issue out of it or the crackdown in Hong Kong as part of its negotiations with Beijing.
Leading Democratic presidential contenders largely champion the idea that the U.S. must defend universal human rights and push back on China's abuses.
Harris has criticized Trump in response to a Council of Foreign Relations questionnaire for "turning a blind eye" to these abuses in hopes of earning a "win in his trade war."
Castro brought up the issue in the last Democratic presidential debate.
"We need to return to a leader when it comes to things like human rights," he said. "We have millions of Uighurs, for instance, in China that right now are being imprisoned and mistreated."
Biden has also weighed in.
"The forced detention of over a million Uighur Muslims in western China is unconscionable. America should speak out against the internment camps in Xinjiang and hold to account the people and companies complicit in this appalling oppression," he told the Council on Foreign Relations.
For his part, Buttigieg called the Chinese Communist Party's treatment of the Uighurs "repressive." He told the Council on Foreign Relations that Washington should strengthen alliances "to put collective pressure on China" for its human rights abuses.
Harris, Sanders and Warren have endorsed a proposed bipartisan congressional bill, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, which directs various U.S. government agencies to prepare reports on China's treatment of the Muslim minorities.
The legislation condemns "gross human rights violations" against the Uighurs, calling for "an end to arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China."
The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting consideration by the House of Representatives.
In April, Warren was among dozens of bipartisan lawmakers who signed a letter to Pompeo and other senior officials, urging the administration to impose sanctions against Chinese officials and entities involved in the ongoing human rights abuses against the Uighurs.
Atlantic Council's senior fellow Robert Manning says the U.S. government has come to an agreement on the idea that the assumptions that have guided the U.S. policy since its diplomatic normalization with China "have proven wrong."
Manning said China under Xi's rule has moved away from former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening policies, becoming "a predatory mercantilist party-state." He added that China's "assertiveness in the South China Sea and repression of Uighurs" are all leading Americans to be "tough" on China.
So far, politicians in both parties in Washington appear to be more alarmed about China than the American public.
A recently released survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests there is a split between Washington's elite decision-makers and the general public on China.
Surveys show more of the American public saw China as a threat in 1998 and 2002 than they do today.
The polling also revealed a growing divide among Republican and Democratic respondents. Some 54% of Republicans view China's rise as a threat, while only 36% of Democrats view it that way.
Manning predicts it will take time for the U.S. public to come to terms with China's rise.