Trump and Biden agree on many things

Likely US presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump agree about Russia and China more than they admit.

| 9 min read

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden see China as the main rival to the US and wish to ensure the US has power and influence to counter China in many areas. Both also say they want to stand up to Russia where it threatens Western interests, though there is an important difference over Ukraine.

Both accept the need for substantial US military capability and are prepared to deploy carrier groups and military planes to trouble spots. Both wish to police the sea lanes of the world, to support allies in all continents and retain the capacity to put a mobile army in the field if need arose. Both in office have been reluctant to commit to long-lasting and difficult wars. Both wanted out of Afghanistan.

Neither want US troops to fight in Ukraine or on the ground in the Middle East. They have seen from the experiences of past Presidents leaving Korea, Vietnam and various Middle Eastern countries that war can be long, arduous, and entail substantial loss of life. It may not result in the successful establishment of a friendly democracy that lives at peace thereafter.

Both see the Five Eyes grouping of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as an important part of security in intelligence gathering and threat assessment. Both accept they need to offer NATO leadership, though Mr Trump is tougher demanding more contribution from other members. Both accept a special relationship with Japan in Asia.

The relationship with China

This is the prime relationship that matters worldwide, both for world peace and for world trade and growth. Mr Trump intensified trade disputes with China when in office, arguing that China was exploiting privileged access to the global institutions including the World Trade Organisation. He felt it was very one-sided and sought through tariffs to balance the trade more. The US trade deficit proved persistent.

President Biden signalled some easing of these frictions but continued with some of them. He intensified the pressures to get China out of US supply chains in technology areas and increased the bans on the passing of US technology to China for a combination of security and trade reasons. Both men wish to send a clear signal that China should not invade or annex Taiwan, whilst both adhere to the diplomatic nicety that the US accepts the One China doctrine and does not recognise Taiwan as an independent country.

The relationship does not include an official embassy and is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act. Mr Trump is currently on State Department message. President Biden did misspeak to warn China he would intervene militarily were China to move against Taiwan. That may have been necessary as China had watched his lack of intervention in Ukraine and his pull out from Afghanistan and may have drawn the wrong conclusion without the tougher statement on Taiwan. Both men in office keep US naval ships to sail through the Taiwan straits in international waters, provide military support to Taiwan and have a carrier group in the area. The aim of the policy is to deter any unilateral variation in the settlement by the use of force.

Both wish to onshore more investment to the US, reduce Chinese imports, eliminate China from technology exchanges, and prevent Chinese students getting into sensitive scientific research in US universities. Mr Trump was stronger in his rhetoric on trade and the currency, whilst Secretary of State Blinken has sought to normalise and calm relations outside the disagreements over technology, Taiwan, Hong Kong and civil rights.

The US seeing what has happened in Hong Kong after it returned to Chinese control would not want that to happen to Taiwan. They are also both conscious of the need to build up US capabilities in semiconductors, with Taiwan Semiconductor making investments in the US, to reduce dependency on imports from the island. Whilst Mr Trump as President might introduce new uncertainties into the relationship, the main aims of policy would be the same. China will already have experience of dealing with someone who is so different in approach to themselves.

The response to Russia

Democrats have claimed that Mr Trump was too close to Russia and worry he would be too soft on Russia. Mr Trump responds by saying he is against Russian expansion by force and that Russia did not dare take more of Ukraine on his watch, unlike the position under Obama when they took Crimea and with Biden when they are trying to take the Donbas. Mr Trump claims he can stop the war if elected. Presumably, he has in mind getting Ukraine to the negotiating table by threatening an end to military support, and Russia perhaps by letting them know he will step up support for Ukraine if they will not parley.

The Republicans, as a party, are tiring of the big financial and weapons commitment to Ukraine and would be amenable to a compromise peace between Ukraine and Russia. President Biden might also move more in that direction as he is being blocked by Republicans in trying to finance more help. He is also under some pressure from his own party where views are evolving.

Both men will be aware of the cyber and other challenges Russia poses to US security. They can see the influence Russia has gained in the Middle East and understand Russia’s ambitions under Putin to re possess more of the lost territory from the old USSR. Both wish to limit this but neither wish to involve the US in war against Russia.

The attitude to world bodies

The biggest difference between the two lies in their attitude towards world institutions. Mr Trump, speaking for many Republicans, disagrees with their views and actions in many cases, wishes them to have less power and influence and will consider declining to cooperate or cutting their funding. Mr Biden and the Democrats wish to support them and work through them, finding the attitudes of those who run them more to their liking than Republicans do.

Mr Trump wants out of the Paris Treaty and climate change world targets and proposals. He is sceptical about the World Health Organisation and its relation to China and is not keen on the United Nations. He once threatened to pull out of NATO but that was a ruse to get the many members who did not pay their 2% of GDP minimum to defence to pay up. It had some success.

The US is usually the largest donor to these world bodies, so Mr Trump would have an easy lever which he is likely to use. President Biden favours good relations with the EU whilst President Trump is more suspicious of it. Being a grouping of member states, it does not make it easy to respond on a leader-to-leader basis, and to do deals quickly and as a result of personal contact in the way Mr Trump prefers. He is critical of its approach to energy, climate change and regulation and the shortfall in defence capability of its main members.

Approach to India and Asia

The main US allies in Asia Pacific are Japan, Australia, Korea, and the Philippines. The US has a number of security treaties and partnerships with countries and a chain of bases in the area. The most significant are in South Korea and Japan with Singapore and Diego Garcia as important.

After the bitter experience of naval actions to regain control of the seas in the Second World War the US has kept bases and friendly ports to allow its naval and Air Force assets to keep access to Asia and to ensure an alliance of democracies. Both men accept this pattern. India is a difficult country for the US, wishing to have good links to Russia as well as America and buying Russian as well as US weapons. The joint dislike of China creates some basis for further progress in the relationship.

The election will not change the balance of risks much when it comes to US relations with the leaders of the anti-US bloc.

Whilst a Trump Presidency would generate more headlines and introduce more uncertainties into US relationships with the wider world, there would be considerable continuity in policy aims. Neither of the men wants a war with China or Russia. Both wish to avoid being dragged into a damaging regional war in the way their predecessors were.

President Biden works more closely through officials to seek agreements, and favours using international bodies. Mr Trump would want personal deals with world leaders and would sometimes shock to try to improve the terms. Both see China as a rival that needs containing. Both would probably like the Ukraine war over. The election will not change the balance of risks much when it comes to US relations with the leaders of the anti-US bloc.

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Trump and Biden agree on many things

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