President Joe Biden issued a stern warning to President Xi Jinping that he will protect America from Chinese threats to its sovereignty during his State of the Union address, escalating a suspected spy balloon showdown.
Biden slammed Beijing in front of millions of viewers in the United States and around the world on Tuesday, as diplomatic tensions with China escalate and new details of a vast Chinese balloon surveillance programme emerge.
Biden’s statements were unusually direct in the highly symbolic choreography of the US-China relationship, raising questions about how Beijing will respond, even if his tone spoke to a charged domestic political context, as Republicans complain he was too slow to shoot down the balloon.
In his speech to the House of Representatives, Biden stated that he told Xi that Washington seeks “competition, not conflict.” However, he added that the United States’ investments in alliances, military capabilities, and advanced technologies had put the country in the best position in decades to compete with China and defend its interests.
“Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” Biden said, referring to the moment on Saturday when a US jet fired a missile that exploded the balloon off the east coast of the United States after it had spent days floating across the continental United States and Canada.
Biden’s remarks were made in a theatrical setting and were intended to provide political cover. However, a president warning China not to violate US sovereignty was a remarkable moment that highlighted a significant geopolitical shift.
Moments later, as he slammed autocracies and argued for the superiority of democracies, Biden specifically mentioned Xi in an impromptu addition to his speech.
“Name a world leader who would swap places with Xi Jinping. “Name one!” Biden was speaking about his Chinese counterpart, whom he met last year in Indonesia and has known for years. At the end of a sentence that could be interpreted as dismissive of China’s stunning economic emergence at a time when Xi’s image has been tainted by mismanagement of Covid-19, the president almost shouted.
Biden’s speech was mostly about domestic issues. However, his speech came at a time of geopolitical upheaval in which the US is also dealing with another nuclear adversary: Russia. He praised the Western effort to counter President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and promised Kyiv’s ambassador, who was present, that “we will stand with you for as long as it takes.”
A rare show of unity in Washington
In Washington, almost nothing unites Democrats and Republicans.
However, Biden’s remarks highlighted how opposition to China, which has been building for several years, has now become a rallying and unifying point in US politics. China has long waged a broad intelligence campaign against the United States, employing satellites, cyber, and traditional collection methods. The United States also conducts extensive intelligence operations against China. However, the sight of a balloon tracking across the United States, visible from the ground and on widespread television coverage, encapsulated a potential threat to US sovereignty from China like never before, amid talk of a new Cold War.
Biden’s candid remarks were also significant in the increasingly tumultuous competition between the United States and China. For much of the last two decades, US policy has been geared towards integrating China into the global system as a competitor rather than an adversary, including its admission to the World Trade Organization. However, given China’s massive economic growth and increasing diplomatic belligerence, many Americans now regard that strategy as a failure. The United States’ shift to talking about establishing guardrails for the relationship and the need to protect the Western-led rules-based international system is viewed negatively in China as an attempt to check its rightful destiny as a world power.
Biden has built on former President Donald Trump’s hostile turn against Beijing, which was fueled by the outbreak of a global pandemic that originated in China, and has proposed sweeping new laws and policies that challenge China’s dominance. In yet another show of bipartisan opposition to China, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has formed a new bipartisan House committee to investigate the perceived threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
And Trump, demonstrating yet another escalation in domestic political hostility towards Beijing, wasted no time after Tuesday’s speech in a way that signals that China bashing – a common feature of presidential campaigns – will be intense in the 2024 campaign. This could exacerbate diplomatic tensions and fuel Beijing’s belief that the US is determined to contain its rise.
Trump’s campaign promised to impose travel and visa restrictions in order to “cut off Chinese access” to US secrets, as well as new restrictions on Chinese ownership of US energy, technology, infrastructure, farmland, medical supplies, and other assets. It was unclear how Trump’s plans would differ from those already in place. And none of the tough new talk – from Biden and Trump – acknowledges the deep and intricate links between the US and Chinese economies, which would make full decoupling a costly process for both sides. A direct military confrontation or full-fledged war would be even more devastating to the world economy.
The next steps as anti-Chinese rhetoric grows stronger
One key question now is whether the heated rhetoric between the United States and China, which is often motivated by domestic concerns, is simply a case of both sides going through the diplomatic motions after a period of turbulence, or whether it represents another new baseline in a deteriorating relationship, similar to the one caused by former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. It was notable that Biden did not specifically mention the democratic island – possibly the most likely trigger of a US-China conflict – in his remarks, possibly to avoid escalating tensions.
In an apparent rewrite of the long-held policy of strategic ambiguity on the issue, Biden has repeatedly stated as president that he would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, only for officials to insist that the US stance has not changed.
The president spoke as the already tense situation with China over the balloon became even more so. The Chinese embassy said in a statement that the top Chinese official in Washington, Xu Xueyuan, had earlier made “stern representations” in demarches to senior State Department and national security officials, complaining that the US had used force to attack the balloon. “It was clear they are scrambling to do damage control, rather than credibly address their intrusion into our airspace,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.
China initially expressed regret for what it claimed was a civilian airship entering US airspace. However, its reaction has hardened since the balloon was shot down. The Pentagon said earlier Tuesday that China had turned down US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s request for a meeting with his counterparts in Beijing. What remains unclear is whether the Chinese stance will result in months of severing communication between the rivals – a dangerous situation given the proximity of their forces and the possibility of miscalculation in the South China Sea – or whether they will reengage once the rhetorical grandstanding is over.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his planned trip to Beijing due to the balloon incident, he was careful to say he was “postponing,” not cancelling his trip entirely. However, there is no indication that conditions have stabilised to the point where a trip, which was intended to address the kinds of tensions exacerbated by the balloon issue, can take place anytime soon.
One risk is that rising anti-China sentiment in Washington, which many top leaders see as a result of Xi’s increasingly nationalistic and abrasive foreign policy, will stymie a much-needed domestic debate about how to handle China policy. The current irresistible political momentum is for politicians to outdo one another in showing how tough they are on Beijing. But, as Republicans quickly condemned Biden for his balloon response, this anti-China fervour on both sides of the aisle is hardly conducive to easing tensions.
Tuesday’s revelations about the scope of China’s balloon programme did nothing to alleviate suspicions about the country. US intelligence officials believe the Chinese military has an extensive surveillance programme based in the province of Hainan that has conducted at least two dozen missions across at least five continents in recent years. According to one official familiar with the intelligence, roughly half of those flights were within US airspace but not necessarily over US territory.
Concurrent clashes with nuclear superpowers
The president delivered his speech at a tense juncture in the United States’ confrontations with China and Russia. In a new era of great power politics, which Biden sees as a battle between democracy and tyranny, the two nuclear superpowers have tightened their relationship. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was framed by Biden as “a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world,” and an example of how America was working for more “freedom, dignity, and peace.”
His remarks on Russia were immediately followed by those on China, making it impossible to overlook the symbolic synergy between his policy towards both nations as he laid out what could be seen as a Biden doctrine of standing with democracies against autocracies and increasing attempts by nations like Russia and China to apply their power beyond their borders.