President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2021.
Melina Mara | Reuters
BEIJING — U.S. President Joe Biden called for America to work together against competition from China, as tensions between the two nations simmer.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” Biden said in off-the-cuff remarks as part of his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night in Washington. He cited more than 24 hours of private conversation and travel with Xi, whom Biden met as vice president during the Obama administration.
Biden added: “(Xi) and other autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.”
Taking a tough stance on China, rather than engagement, has become one point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans in an increasingly politically divided country.
We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.
President of the United States
Tensions between the U.S. and China escalated under former President Donald Trump, who used tariffs and sanctions to try to address longstanding complaints about China’s unfair practices. These included requiring companies to transfer technology in order to do business locally.
While Biden has sought to work more with traditional U.S. allies in putting pressure on China, he has stuck to Trump’s firm position on Beijing, including retaining tariffs and sanctions.
“We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century,” Biden said. “We are at a great inflection point in history. We have to do more than just build back better. … We have to compete more strenuously.”
He talked about how, in a time of rapid technological advancement, U.S. spending on research and development has dropped, and how China and other countries are “closing in fast.”
“We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future,” Biden said, naming electric car batteries, biotechnology, computer chips and clean energy. He also emphasized these policies would create more jobs in the U.S.: “There’s simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason. None.”
However, Biden said competition with China — or a strong U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific — does not mean the U.S. is looking for conflict. Xi was the first foreign national leader to speak last week at a U.S.-led climate summit.
“There is a greater possibility under Biden than under Trump that the desire to ‘work with’ China to fight climate change derails other policies that push back against Beijing,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder of Strategy Risks, a New York-based firm which examines businesses’ exposure to China.
But he expects the overall relationship between the two countries will remain tense, and noted that companies and investors, not politics, have played a greater role in moving U.S. manufacturing jobs to China.