US President Joe Biden took a jab at China and Russia in his first speech to Congress on Wednesday, pledging to maintain a strong US military presence in the Indo-Pacific and promising to boost technological development and trade.
This year’s scene at the front of the House chamber also had a historic look: For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, was seated behind the chief executive. And she was next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future,” Biden said.
And in a line that drew some of the strongest applause of the evening, he said, “There is simply no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”
Biden has repeatedly identified competition with China as the greatest foreign policy challenge the country faces. He and his fellow Democrats as well as opposition Republicans have all moved toward a harder line on dealings with Beijing.
“America will stand up to unfair trade practices that undercut American workers and American industries, like subsidies to state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technology and intellectual property,” Biden said.
He also said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific “just as we do for NATO in Europe – not to start conflict – but to prevent one.”
While offering few specifics, Biden gave more attention to China than any other foreign policy issue in a speech largely focused on domestic policies.
He has been urging lawmakers to pass a sweeping bipartisan package of legislation now making its way through the Senate that would press Beijing on human rights, address the trade imbalance and boost funding for U.S. development of new technologies to compete more effectively with China.
“America won’t back away from our commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms and our alliances,” he said.
Biden also addressed competition with another geopolitical rival, Russia. He said he had made clear to President Vladimir Putin that Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections and cyber attacks on government and businesses would have consequences, but Washington does not seek escalation.
And, in a departure from the go-it-alone foreign policy of his Republican predecessor former President Donald Trump, Biden said he would work closely with allies to counter the threats posed by the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
President Biden declared that “America is rising anew” as he called for an expansion of federal programmes to drive the economy past the pandemic and broadly extend the social safety net on a scale not seen in decades.
“I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” he said. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
While the ceremonial setting of the Capitol was the same as usual, the visual images were unlike any previous presidential address. Members of Congress wore masks and were seated apart because of pandemic restrictions.
“America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America,” Biden said.
The first ovation came as Biden greeted “Madam Vice President.” He added, “No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”
“Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?” he asked. “America’s adversaries – the autocrats of the world – are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong.”
Biden’s speech also provided an update on combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief cheques delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the US. He also championed his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure to be financed by higher taxes on corporations.