Biden barely mentions China balloon at 2023 State of the Union, spoke mainly on US economy

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On Feb. 7 (Feb. 8 Singapore time) United States President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union speech, an annual address to Congress.

He detailed his policy agenda for the year, and despite a significant incident over the previous weekend which saw the shooting down of weather balloon from China, his speech focused mainly on domestic and economic priorities.

Four out of 73 minutes

Biden arrived at the U.S. Capitol building on Feb. 7 (U.S. time) to deliver his annual State of the Union speech, his second since taking power in 2021.

His speech, which lasted just over an hour and fifteen minutes, was delivered in a raucous environment, where he was interrupted numerous times by the applause of his own Democratic Party, and by the heckles and jeers of the opposing Republican party.

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Biden spoke about numerous domestic and economic policy issues, such as raising the U.S.’s debt ceiling, introducing a billionaire’s minimum tax, reducing gun crime, and fighting the U.S.’s opioid and fentanyl problems, to name but a few items.

U.S. foreign policy only received just over four minutes out of a 73 minute speech and Biden ultimately limited himself to two topics: the war in Ukraine and China.

Biden was unequivocal about either, calling the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and its President Vladimir Putin a “murderous assault”, but praised the response of the U.S. and NATO in standing against “Putin’s aggression”, while pointing out Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. who was in the audience.

Balloon boy

He spent a slightly longer time on China, which came as a surprise as the entirety of the previous week had seen the U.S. captivated by a balloon.

A large balloon had floated diagonally from west to the east across most of the continental U.S., from the state of Montana to the South Carolina, where the U.S. shot it down over the water with a missile fired from a stealth fighter jet, as reported by BBC.

China’s government has characterised the balloon as an errant weather balloon, admitting that they had lost control of it  accidentally.

According to Xinhua, China said that the destruction of the balloon was an overreaction by the U.S., and members of its diplomatic staff and state media mouthpiece Global Times have mocked the U.S. for it. Although it should be noted, they were the ones who lost the balloon.

The U.S. for its part has been recovering the debris from the balloon, which it claimed was a spy balloon.

The tension over the incident was so great that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned visit to Beijing on Friday.

There was some question as to what Biden might say about the incident in the State of Union, but ultimately all he gave the incident was an oblique one line mention where he did not mention the balloon directly.

But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”

Competition not conflict

Biden said that he had “made clear with President Xi (Jinping)” that the U.S. sought “competition, not conflict”, and that he was committed to working with China where it would “advance American interest and benefit the world”.

But said he would not apologise for investing in making America “strong”. He said that the U.S. was:

“Investing in “American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating.

Investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect our advanced technologies so they’re not used against us.”

This was likely a reference to the U.S. and E.U.’s decision to limit the tools which China could use to advance certain sectors, most notably that of computer chips.

In 2022, Biden announced the CHIPS and Science Act that would see the U.S. invest billions in its domestic semiconductor industry, as well as banning U.S. citizens from working for China’s semiconductor industry, according to the BBC.

Europe has taken similar moves, the most notable of which can be seen by Holland agreeing in principle to band sale of chip making equipment to China, as reported by Nikkei, severely hampering China’s ability to build the most advanced semiconductors.

Not mentioned was Taiwan, which has been at the heart of U.S. – China tensions in recent years.

Name me one!

But Biden also alluded to the idea that the competition with China was one of democracy against autocracies, and that the competition with China should “unite all of us”.

Saying that in the past two years, democracies had strengthened against autocracies (like China), he went off script and bellowed:

“Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping.

Name me one! Name me one!”

While it was not immediately clear what he was specifically referring to, China is in the midst of dealing with several challenges.

Its Zero Covid policy, for which it touted in 2020 and 2021, seemed to come off the rails in 2022, resulting in widespread lockdowns across the country including massive cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The effort of locking down had allowed China to remain economically open in the initial years, but then necessitated its own economic shutdown it when it failed to contain the more transmissible strains of the virus.

Those lockdowns led to the most significant public discontent in China in over 30 years.

Foreign and domestic

Biden’s State of the Union was an attempt to portray an U.S. that was economically vibrant, and set the stage for a potential 2024 presidential campaign for Joe Biden.

It comes after a midterm election where his party did surprisingly well, keeping hold of the Senate, albeit only just, and losing the House of Representatives by a far smaller number than expected.

But despite a few attempts to reach out to his opponents, the jeers suggests that while his country’s main competitor might be China, Biden’s real trouble as far as legislation goes is on the domestic front.

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Top image via The White House/YouTube