The Empire State Building in New York, the U.S., celebrates Chinese New Year, which fell on January 22 this year, with a light show on January 20 (XINHUA)
It's America's annual exercise in patriotic rhetoric, indomitable optimism and global leadership.
The presidential State of the Union (SOTU) address—first delivered by George Washington in 1790 and repeated every year since 1913—showcases each leader's policy priorities and persuasion skills.
The SOTU oration reflects the president's personality, from the soaring spirit of Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan to the plucky persistence of the current president, Joe Biden, who annually reminds his audience, "It's never a good bet to bet against America."
The speech is grand political theater with two audiences in mind: foreign governments and domestic voters. The Super Bowl of American politics, it attracts the highest TV ratings of any regularly scheduled political event. Politicians, pundits and diplomats parse the text for hidden meaning and for shifts in tone and priorities.
That brings us to Joe Biden and China.
A fine line
The 46th American president's three speeches delivered to joint sessions of the U.S. Congress have reflected a subtle but significant evolution in his approach to ties between the world's two largest economies. While Biden's overarching theme—economic competition with China—has remained consistent since 2021, he has moderated his sharp rhetoric over the past two years as he attempts to rebuild a relationship damaged by a trade war, the COVID-19 pandemic and global fissures exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Each successive year, Biden has adopted a more measured tone.
"I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world," he said on February 7, the first such pronouncement of cooperation in his three annual speeches.
That reflects a rhetorical shift since Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House in January 2021. In his first address to Congress three months later, Biden explicitly criticized China on human rights, "unfair" trade practices and "theft" of technology and intellectual property, while alluding to military tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. Last year, Biden called on Congress to enact legislation to help American companies compete with China. This year, there were no specific calls to action to counter China and no lectures on bilateral flash points. These were replaced by self-congratulatory talk of U.S. economic progress.
"Today, we're in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world," he said.
Even the recent balloon incident that obsessed the American media and political elite received only an oblique and passing reference in the 355th paragraph of a 436-paragraph speech.
Staying silent on the biggest story in the news demonstrated Biden's determination to walk a fine line between trying to improve relations with China and being attacked over "softness." When asked in a television interview about the balloon—described as a spy craft by the American military and a misguided meteorological mission by Chinese officials—Biden responded that bilateral relations would not suffer.
"I made it real clear to [Chinese President] Xi Jinping that we're going to compete fully with China, but we're not looking for conflict," Biden said in a February 8 interview with PBS NewsHour.
In addition to a tonal shift in Biden's words, his SOTU speech also reflected a pivot away from foreign affairs toward domestic politics in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. Last year, the conflict in Ukraine dominated Biden's address to Congress. This year, brief sections of the speech on Russia and China were buried toward the end of one of the longest orations of Biden's five-decade public career.
That's a big shift from previous years. In 2021, the first mention of China came in the 38th paragraph of the address, about one fifth through the speech. The next year, Biden got to China about a quarter of the way into his address. In 2023, Biden took more than an hour—four fifths of a speech dedicated almost entirely to domestic issues—before turning to China.
Biden mentioned China six times and Xi Jinping once—compared with eight references to Xi in 2021. Just 2 percent of Biden's recent speech dealt with China, versus 9 percent two years ago.
Some analysts see an opportunity here to leverage the administration's rhetorical shift into positive policy outcomes for both nations.
"In 2023, there is the opportunity, the potential, of lending a certain degree of a stability to the relationship," Sourabh Gupta, senior Asia-Pacific international relations specialist at the Institute for China-American Studies in Washington, D.C., said.
A battle on two fronts
But there is little evidence that Biden's tonal shift has yielded any benefits—at least thus far. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official criticized Biden's emphasis on strategic competition with China. While China will neither shy away nor be fearful of competition, it is "opposed to defining the entire China-U.S. relationship in terms of competition," spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing on February 8. "It is not the practice of a responsible country to smear a country or restrict the country's legitimate development rights under the excuse of competition, even at the expense of disrupting the global industrial and supply chain."
One reason Chinese officials are reluctant to praise Biden is that American policies have changed little in two years. The current president has retained most of the Trump-imposed tariffs designed to penalize Chinese manufacturers, and the Biden administration has expanded the "blacklist" prohibiting certain Chinese technology companies from doing business in the U.S.
"I'm not so optimistic that Biden is less hawkish [than Trump]," Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics at East China Normal University, said. "What Biden has advanced in terms of concrete containment efforts since he took office two years ago against China far outpace anything that we saw under Trump."
Biden's SOTU rhetoric on China and his response to the Chinese balloon were attacked by Republicans as weak and inadequate. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner said Biden "lacks urgency" to deal with China, while Senator Ted Cruz said Biden "telegraphed weakness" by waiting for a week before ordering the destruction of the Chinese balloon.
While Biden will try to "play a steady hand" with China, Republicans will try to undermine any easing of bilateral tensions, senior analyst Gupta said. He predicted the new House committee on China will try to embarrass both the American president and the Chinese Government.
"Congress is going to go out of its way to try to spoil the relationship, frankly," he predicted. "It's just going to be very messy in terms of congressional-executive politics with regard to China this year, which was not so much the case previously. What the Republicans are trying to do is denigrate China but [also] use that as a stick to beat Biden going into 2024."
James Palmer, deputy editor of American news publication Foreign Policy, noted that such behavior reflects a "tendency among U.S. politicians to use concerns about China as a weapon in domestic partisan fights."
"Pundits and politicians in Washington tend to read Beijing's actions as a test of will," he wrote. "From this perspective, anything China does probes the boundaries of the U.S. willingness to react; any reaction but the most extreme will convince U.S. opponents that it's weak."
If Republicans succeed in portraying Biden as "weak on China" heading into the 2024 campaign, the president may embrace tougher talk in the year ahead, Mahoney suggested.
"This will either be an opportunity for them to cooperate or Biden will one-up them and propose something even more provocative in order to continue this political struggle that we see between both parties of who can be the toughest against China," he predicted. BR
The author is co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Beijing-based Tsinghua University
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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