US President Joe Biden pledged on Thursday to prevent China from becoming the world’s “leading” and “wealthiest” country by continuing to close ranks with allies and boosting America’s investment in technology.
Casting America’s competition with Beijing as the most important front in a generational struggle between democracy and autocracy, Biden reiterated a plan to convene a democracy summit and more than double the amount of investment in science and technology as a percentage of GDP.
“I see stiff competition with China,” Biden said in his first press conference as president. “China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticise them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch, because United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”
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Biden lamented that US investment in “pure research and investment in science” had dropped to 0.7 per cent of the country’s GDP, down from “a little over 2 per cent” in the 1960s.
“The future lies and who can in fact, own the future as it relates to technology, quantum computing and a whole range of things, including the medical field,” he said, pledging to ensure that investment in areas including medical research, artificial intelligence and quantum computing adds up to “closer to 2 per cent”.
China has taken many steps in recent years to catch up with the US and other developed countries in advanced technologies, including the Made in China 2025 programme and a 200 billion yuan (US$29 billion) fund aimed at investing in home-grown semiconductor development.
“China is racing to develop semiconductors and other core technologies so as to reduce its vulnerability to supply chains that pass through the United States,” Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy programme at New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said in a September 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs.
“In pursuit of that goal, its leaders are mobilising tech companies, tightening links to the countries participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and sustaining a campaign of cyber-industrial espionage,” he said. “The effort to reduce tech dependency seems to be helping drive China’s larger economic agenda.”
Last month, a report from Washington-based think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said China’s policy of using government incentives to boost its semiconductor industry has hurt innovation at companies in the US and other market-driven economies.
Aside from the broad ideological differences, Biden cited the Chinese government’s policies towards Uygurs and Hong Kong as issues that no American president should back down from “as the last one did”, one of several jabs at former president Donald Trump.
While Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo frequently denounced the Chinese government’s treatment of Uygurs and opposition activists in Hong Kong, and placed sanctions on dozens of officials in response, the former president rarely voiced the same criticism.
Biden also touched on the gap between spending on infrastructure in the US and China, asserting that Beijing spends three times more on transport and other public facilities. He said one in five miles of America’s highways are in poor condition, lead pipes servicing water lines must be swapped out, asbestos in public schools constitute a drag on the country’s economic growth and public health.
That message was also delivered in Congress on Thursday, when US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“By some measures, China spends more on infrastructure every year than the US and Europe combined,” Buttigieg said. “The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future. We face an imperative to create resilient infrastructure and confront inequities that have devastated communities.”
As he did on inauguration night in January, Biden reminisced about his previous interactions with Chinese President Xi Jinping – when both were vice-presidents – calling him a “smart guy”, but reiterating that Xi “doesn’t have a democracy-with-a-small-d bone in his body”.
“He’s one of the guys like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future [and that] democracy can’t function in an ever complex world,” he said.
“We’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition,” he added. “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century, and autocracies.”
Biden also addressed on Thursday North Korea’s apparent firing of two short-range missiles, the country’s first missile test since he took office in January, characterising the move as a violation of United Nations sanctions.
“We’re consulting with our allies and partners, and there will be responses if [the North Koreans] choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly,” Biden said.
“But I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearisation.”
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