WASHINGTON -- As vice president, Joe Biden chummed around with China's Xi Jinping from South Gate to Beijing, boasted of tutoring him on American politics during long walks and quiet dinners, and even helped him forge partnerships with Hollywood movie moguls.
President Donald Trump subsequently worked just as hard to charm the Chinese autocrat, guiding him on a tour through Trump's gilded Florida resort, posing for a joint portrait in Beijing's ancient Forbidden City and repeatedly praising his "friend" for controlling the coronavirus outbreak.
For Xi, such coziness with America's leaders was invaluable as he consolidated power at home and argued for China's preeminence on the world stage. Those same moments have become toxic for both Biden and Trump, however, as they contend for the presidency with U.S.-China relations as bitter as at any time in memory, and Xi the symbol of America's failed policies from trade to pandemic control.
For all of Trump's own chumminess with Xi, his campaign sees voters' anti-China sentiment as one of his most potent weapons against Biden, echoing a strategy Trump used in 2016 to portray Hillary Clinton as a globalist more eager to rebuild the U.S.-China relationship than to protect American manufacturing and tech jobs. Yet that isn't proving an effective cudgel for Trump this go-round -- not after 3 1/2 years of his own missteps with China.
"We've squandered credibility, but with very little strategic gain" said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, in assessing U.S. policy over the Trump years. "We've done nothing to dent China's view of the world or change its strategy."
During Trump's presidency, China has furthered its incursion into the disputed South China Sea, given little in trade deals despite U.S. tariffs that have boomeranged on American farmers, cracked down on democracy activists in Hong Kong and put religious minorities in concentration camps in Xinjiang, all with little resistance.
As U.S. influence ebbed and warring administration factions clashed, Trump has vacillated between hurling racial slurs -- blaming China both for the coronavirus's spread and for the resulting American job losses -- and continuing to flatter Xi as Trump grasps for a more favorable trade deal.
Multiple polls show Trump no longer holds an advantage on the question of which candidate Americans believe would better handle China. And the enthusiasm some top Chinese Communist Party officials express for Trump's reelection -- believing the U.S. is an ever-weaker adversary with him in the White House -- is a damning endorsement for a leader trying to present himself as a bulwark against an ascendant rival superpower.
With all this baggage, another politician might avoid the China topic. Not Trump.
Even the recent, embarrassing revelations by Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, that the president sought help from China toward his reelection have not deterred a strategy of trying to brand the former vice president as "Beijing Biden."