Joe Biden’s meandering State of the Union left out a great many things, as his voice toggled between insincere whisper and frail bellow. The loudest moment of the night was when, going off-script from his prepared remarks, he insisted that really — c’mon, I really mean it! — China’s Xi Jinping is being isolated from the world for some reason.
Biden: "Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one!" pic.twitter.com/5Lm9JZFY3j
— Greg Price (@greg_price11) February 8, 2023
“Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one! Name me one!” Biden yelled. The comment had an air of frustration given that the humiliating Chinese spy balloon was fresh in the minds of all on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict,” Biden said in his prepared remarks. “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.”
Well, eventually. After a long while. After said spy balloon got to traverse the United States undisturbed and report everything it saw back to its controllers. After it achieved its aim of expressing how little China respects our borders and our people.
Biden kept his remarks about China brief, and for good reason. For all his talk of unity, it’s Biden and his administration who seem out of step with the bipartisan consensus on China. Most Republicans and Democrats agree about China’s malign activity and the villainy of Xi’s regime, even if they disagree on the best way to respond to it. But rather than lean into this agreement and right the wrongs of Biden’s foolhardy approach to Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion, the “competition not conflict” language sounds out of touch. It’s also inconsistent with his overall message on cheap goods and off-shored jobs, which was central to his speech and presumably will be to his 2024 campaign message.
By combining his “Buy American” rhetoric with a more robust anti-China mission, Biden could also have undermined his critics on the right, who very much want to make Democrats look weak on China. He could have echoed the words of the late Angelo Codevilla, who in his posthumously released book America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams, made the case against just spending more money on ships. Codevilla thought we should place military resources in Taiwan itself:
Placing Taiwan in its proper geopolitical context is prerequisite for any serious us resistance to China. Military deployments that prove — not promise — that Taiwan is beyond China’s reach would go a long way to convince in China that it would gain nothing from greater military assertiveness. Making Taiwan impregnable, far from inciting war, may be the key to persuading Beijing that it has no sane alternative to peace…
Ensuring freedom of the sea requires preventing hostile powers from controlling major transit points, and especially islands on the oceans edges. That is particularly important in the Pacific. That is why Japan’s, Taiwan’s, the Philippines’, and Indonesia’s independence is important to America. These vital interests cannot be served merely by adding ships to the U.S. Pacific fleet by freedom of navigation patrols, and by making encouraging gestures to traditional allies. More of what we have been doing. Land-based sea control has the advantage.
Such an approach would receive plaudits from the right, while also being consistent with Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, whose visit to Taiwan last year riled up so many Chinese officials. Of course, had Biden sounded a similar note, it could have been interpreted as an indictment of his own administration’s use of “integrated deterrence” in Ukraine, which China Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher recently decried in The Spectator World:
“We need to understand why deterrence failed in Ukraine and learn that lesson so that it can be applied to ensure that deterrence does not fail in Taiwan,” Gallagher told me. “The Biden Pentagon goes around bragging about the success of ‘integrated deterrence,’ which is bullshit jargon designed to justify cuts to conventional power under the naive assumption you can make up for those cuts with unproven technology, allies and soft power.”
The biggest foreign policy question facing this Congress is how deep the unanimity goes on the China issue. Will the obvious lesson from Ukraine be that it’s better to spend money on military hardware beforehand, to deter the cost and damage of future attacks? Or will there be no fiscal appetite for more military spending, even in an area of far more strategic importance to the United States than Ukraine? If bipartisan unity on China only extends to forcing the sale of TikTok, then that will be rightly viewed as a failure.
As for Biden’s yell about Xi Jinping’s isolation, he may want to check with his old friend Barack Obama. As the New York Times reported back in 2011, “Mr. Obama has told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China.” It’s a lot easier to get things done when you don’t have a free press, free speech, and term limits. What leader wouldn’t want that?