Trump’s trade policy in a second term would basically be more of the same: he would continue hard bargaining with China and other trade partners, including by threatening tariffs under various provisions of U.S. trade law. President Trump would try to build on the Phase 1 trade agreement with China and would continue his hostility to the WTO.  He would not reconsider his decision to withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but he would be open to negotiating a free trade agreement with the UK.

Vice President Biden has criticized President Trump for erratic handling of trade negotiations, especially with China, but has also promised to take a tough line in trade negotiations with China and other countries. In a Biden Presidency, it is unlikely he would end Trump’s tariffs on China without first obtaining concessions from China. He would, however, seek to build multilateral coalitions to enhance leverage in confronting bad Chinese behavior. Biden would also try to reengage with the WTO to restore American leadership there. Lastly, though previously a supporter of the TPP, he says he would not rejoin it “as originally put forward”.

Sanctions have become a favored policy tool of both Congress and President Trump, and that would likely continue in a second Trump Administration. This approach to sanctions is unlikely to change in a fundamental way under Biden, though he has promised to use the sanctions tool more judiciously, and to try to cooperate more with other countries in applying sanctions rather than imposing them unilaterally, and sometimes even threatening to impose sanctions on US allies. To see where there may be changes, it’s necessary to look at the various countries targeted by the US government for sanctions.

  • Iran: Trump has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, applying unilateral US sanctions, and announcing new sanctions on Iran virtually every week. Biden will want to move away from Trump’s Iran policy and return the U.S. to participation in the JCPOA—the so-called “Iran nuclear deal”. It’s possible that he will rescind all the sanctions on Iran that have been imposed under the Trump Administration, but it’s not clear Iran would reciprocate such action by immediately coming back into compliance with the JCPOA itself. Instead, Iran is likely to demand not only that Biden end the sanctions imposed under President Trump, but also that Biden provide compensation for the economic harm it suffered as a result of those sanctions. It’s therefore possible that Biden will feel that he needs to keep many of the sanctions in place until he has negotiated a formula for return by both the US and Iran to full compliance with the JCPOA—and such a negotiation could end up taking a long period of time. It’s safe to say that Biden will not continue imposing new sanctions on Iran, but many of the existing sanctions may remain in place, at least for some period of time.
  • Russia: Under President Trump, new sanctions against Russia have largely been driven by Congress, in significant part because of the belief that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to benefit Trump’s candidacy. Congressional pressure for new sanctions will likely diminish under a Biden Administration. Lifting existing sanctions on Russia is unlikely to be a Biden priority, but over time it’s possible he will seek a less confrontational relationship with Russia, in which case relaxing some of the existing sanctions may be a tactic that he deploys.
  • China: China has been increasingly targeted for human rights-related sanctions over the past year or so. This has primarily come in response to Beijing’s crack-down on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and also concern over China’s treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang Region. Under Trump this has been consistent with his overall approach to China, which has been driven by economic and national security concerns. Biden may take a slightly different approach on economic and national security issues, but it is generally expected that on human rights issues in China, he will be at least aggressive in applying sanctions as the Trump Administration has been, if not more aggressive.
  • Venezuela: There has been growing bipartisan hostility to the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and therefore Biden will be under no pressure from Congress to reverse existing US sanctions on Venezuela. To the contrary, he would face a lot of criticism if he lifted sanctions without adopting other measures to expedite the removal of Maduro from power.