In a State of the Union address that was otherwise almost entirely devoid of foreign policy, President Biden on Tuesday night did devote several hundred words to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to the challenges posed by China.
On the first, he said America had united NATO, confronted Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and stood with the Ukrainian people.
On China, too, Biden touted U.S. leadership on his watch, declaring, “Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was failing in the world.”
“Not anymore,” he added with a small grin.
“We made clear, and I’ve made clear in my personal conversations which have been many with President Xi, that we seek competition, not conflict,” he said. “But I will make no apologies that we are investing and – to make America stronger.”
Biden referred to investment in U.S. innovation in future-defining industries that China wants to dominate; investment in America’s alliances; and modernizing its military to safeguard stability and deter aggression.
“Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world.”
Biden said he was committed to working with China when it will advance American interests and benefit the world.
“But make no mistake about it, as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. “And we did.”
Those words comprised the only (indirect) reference in the speech to the Chinese spy balloon incursion, which has left many Republicans troubled and pressing for answers from the administration and defense chiefs. The U.S. Air Force shot down the balloon on Saturday, after it had floated through U.S. and Canadian airspace for a week
Biden wrapped up the China section of the speech by revisiting a favorite theme – the competition between democracies and autocratic regimes.
“We face serious challenges across the world. But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker,” he said. “Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger.”
Then, departing from his script, the president added a puzzling remark, possibly alluding to the range of problems faced by the Chinese president. “Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping,” he shouted. “Name me one! Name me one!”
Combined, the Russia and China portions of the speech comprised about six percent of the total, a relatively small proportion dedicated to foreign affairs. In last year’s State of the Union, Biden devoted almost 20 percent of the speech to the Ukraine crisis alone.
Tuesday night’s address was silent on a number of significant current international issues, including the unprecedented anti-regime protest movement in Iran, the Taliban’s abusive and misogynistic rule in Afghanistan 18 months after the U.S. withdrawal, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Israeli-Arab normalization, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
Africa did not receive a single mention and the only reference to Asia was a sentence about bridges “forming between partners in the Pacific and those in the Atlantic.”
The single reference in the speech to Latin America was a line in which Biden said unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has been dropping.