Washington(CNN) Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden argued on Wednesday that China is "not competition" for the United States, downplaying the threat from the world's second-largest economy.
Biden's comments drew criticism from Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, a top Biden rival in the 2020 Democratic field, who said it was "wrong to pretend" China wasn't a major economic competitor.
While talking up the United States' place in the world, the former vice president said he doesn't know a "single, solitary" world leader who would not change places with the US over the problems it faces.
"China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man," Biden said while campaigning in Iowa City, Iowa, arguing that China has problems of its own.
"They can't even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains in the east, I mean in the west," Biden said. "They can't figure out how they're going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they're not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they're not, they're not competition for us."
Biden has long made similar remarks about China, dating back to his days as vice president, but the remarks are gaining attention as he leads the crowded field of Democratic candidates. They also paint a stark contrast to President Donald Trump, who campaigned in 2016 by casting China as a threat and as President has treated the world's second-largest economy as a rival superpower to be vanquished.
Biden's remarks about China on Thursday were scoffed at by Republicans, including Romney, who tweeted, "This will not age well."
Sanders, who's also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, used the moment to further draw a contrast between him and Biden without mentioning the former vice president by name.
"Since the China trade deal I voted against, America has lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs," Sanders posted on Twitter. "It's wrong to pretend that China isn't one of our major economic competitors."
Biden's spokesman said the former vice president was not suggesting China isn't a threat, but was pointing out that the United States has myriad advantages over China that should not be overlooked. The line in Biden's speeches is intended to showcase US economic strengths and avoid demoralizing American workers, the campaign said.
"As he has many times, Vice President Biden underscored that, whatever challenges we face as a nation, including those posed by a rising China, they pale in comparison to the structural and social challenges that confront China itself," Andrew Bates said in a statement. "Joe Biden believes it's never a good bet to bet against America and the fundamental strength, resilience, and ingenuity of its people."
China currently is the world's second-largest economy and already the world's largest market for cars and smartphones. Though the country's economy has slowed due to a trade war with the US and government efforts to rein in a huge amount of debt in its financial system, China has showed renewed signs of life in 2019.
China is also set to eclipse the United States as the world's top retail market for the first time, with the gap widening between the two markets in the coming years, according to a report from research firm eMarketer.
The US and China have been locked in a trade war since President Donald Trump slapped tariffs last year on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods over China's theft of US intellectual property. According to the US Trade Representative, Chinese theft of US intellectual property costs $225 billion and $600 billion annually. The two countries are engaged in high-level talks to cut a deal.
The US has also been pressuring other countries not to use Huawei equipment in building next-generation 5G networks, alleging that the products produced by the Chinese tech company could be used for spying.