Joe Biden calls China the ‘most serious competitor’ to the US, in first foreign policy speech

Owen Churchill
·6-min read

In his first foreign policy address, US President Joe Biden on Thursday described China as the “most serious competitor” to the United States and vowed to confront Beijing on various fronts, including human rights, intellectual property and economic policy.

Appearing at the State Department, Biden said his administration would “take on directly the challenges posed [to] our prosperity, security and democratic values by our most serious competitor: China”.

“We’ll confront China’s economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive actions, and push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance,” he said.

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“We’ll compete from a position of strength, by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost,” Biden said, drawing a contrast with the “America first” ideology that underpinned much of the foreign policy pursued by Donald Trump’s administration.

While pledging to hold the Chinese government to account, Biden said the US also stood ready to “work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so”, alluding to his administration’s ambition to cooperate on the climate crisis.

Biden, well-versed in US diplomacy given his long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eight years as vice-president in the Obama administration, used his speech to announce a number of foreign policy moves, including dropping US support for Saudi Arabian-led offensive operations in Yemen.

“The war has to end,” he said, announcing the appointment of a special envoy to focus on the Yemeni conflict, which has killed more than 230,000 people, displaced more than 1 million and triggered a devastating famine.

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Biden also announced a halt to previously planned troop withdrawals from Germany and a major increase of the US refugee admissions cap to 125,000 a year, up from a record low of 15,000 in the last year of Trump’s presidency.

The address came as his administration faces early diplomatic tests, including Russia’s imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a coup in Myanmar that has resulted in a return to military rule – issues about which he expressed concern during his speech.

Relations with Beijing remain fraught, too, with Washington making critical statements about China’s actions in Xinjiang and offering early signs of support to Taiwan, including an unprecedented invitation for the self-ruled island’s representative to attend Biden’s inauguration.

Biden has still not spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he called a “thug” during his election campaign, despite holding conversations with a growing list of world leaders. A State Department official said on Tuesday that the administration wanted to first ensure it was in “lockstep” with its allies before engaging with Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen at a supermarket in Guizhou province on Thursday, still has not spoken with US President Joe Biden. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen at a supermarket in Guizhou province on Thursday, still has not spoken with US President Joe Biden. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing has appealed to Washington to reverse Trump’s “misguided policies”, but Biden’s picks for two top diplomatic posts – Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Linda Thomas-Greenfield for ambassador to the United Nations – have signalled that the new administration will pursue a hardline and multilateral approach to challenging China’s actions.

Earlier on Thursday, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the nomination of Thomas-Greenfield, who vowed to combat China’s “authoritarian agenda” at the UN. Her nomination now moves to the full Senate for consideration, and approval is expected.

Speaking to reporters before Biden’s speech, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration’s priority for its China trade policy was not to get access for multinational investment firms, but to “deal with China’s trade abuses that are harming American jobs and American workers in the United States”.

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On human rights, Blinken has expressed agreement with the Trump administration’s determination that the Chinese government is committing acts of genocide in its treatment of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, angering Beijing.

The State Department recently started a review into whether that official designation met procedural requirements. An agency representative did not respond to an inquiry regarding its status, but said in a statement that China had committed crimes against humanity in the region, including imprisonment, torture, enforced sterilisation and persecution.

“These atrocities shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences,” the statement continued, adding that the administration would “consider all appropriate tools to promote accountability for those responsible and deter future abuses”.

Amid concerns from Republicans that the administration might soften its policies towards China in return for commitments on climate change, Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry, said that US grievances with China, including intellectual property theft, market access and Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, would “never be traded for anything that has to do with climate”.

Citing his administration’s move to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, Biden said on Thursday that climate objectives would permeate all of US diplomacy so as to “challenge other nations, other major emitters, to up the ante”.

Ahead of his address, Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris met with State Department staff to thank them for their service, with Biden pledging to them that he would “have your back”.

State Department career officials were a frequent target of attacks by Trump, who called the agency the “Deep State Department”, referring to a conspiracy theory that a secret cabal of government workers was plotting to undermine his presidency.

In a veiled jab at his predecessor, Biden told the staffers: “In our administration, you’re going to be trusted and you’re going to be empowered.”

Beijing said on Friday that there were inevitably differences between China and the US, but their common interests “outweigh their divergences”.

“China hopes that the US will conform to the opinions of people of the two countries as well as the trend of the times, treating China and China-US relations objectively and rationally, adopting a positive and constructive policy towards China,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

“We hope the US can meet China halfway and focus on cooperation while managing divergences,” he said.

Zhang Jiadong, an international relations professor at Fudan University, said Biden’s speech showed he would not substantially change policies from the Trump era, although he did not describe Beijing as a strategic rival as officials from the Trump administration had done.

“No matter if he agrees with Trump or not, he has to come up with a new word first. But the core has not changed, that is, China is the biggest challenge facing the US,” Zhang said.

“Biden basically talked about problems, competition and conflict whenever he mentioned China in his speech. When it comes to cooperation, China was barely mentioned.”

Zhang also referred to Biden’s mention of the return of manufacturing to the US, and intellectual property – issues also stressed by Trump.

“They are actually the same thing. In a sense, Biden’s position on these issues is inherited from Trump,” he said.

Additional reporting by Rachel Zhang

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