Biden's four SOTU arguments on China
Plus: Which countries got mentioned, and which went unnamed, in this year's speech.
Thanks for reading Here It Comes, my newsletter on the interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. All-access subscriptions are free. Readers who especially wish to support this effort, and have the means, can contribute directly through a paid subscription. –Graham
Two things this edition: (1) A summary of four arguments or pitches President Biden advanced in the State of the Union yesterday, implicitly or explicitly about China, quoting relevant passages; and (2) A return to my Transpacifica blogging past, counting mentions of countries in the speech.
Four arguments on and around China
Four passages of the speech either directly or indirectly highlighted China and competition with China. What jumps out is that the China competition frame is being woven into things that, while not unrelated, need not be about China.
Biden seems to be leaning into the idea that to get bipartisan unity on domestic investments in industrial development, infrastructure, education, etc., the specter of named or unnamed international competitors is necessary: “Winning the competition should unite all of us.” Given the broader national narratives at work, this reads as nearly as much about China as a passage calling out Xi Jinping by name—especially since other advanced industrial economies such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the Netherlands are at least imagined as aligned with the US in the putative competition.
Biden does not name China when he boasts that semiconductor industrial policy will stabilize prices in future shocks and create “field of dreams” jobs in the heartland, but he’s not digging into the topic to brag about beating South Korea. He does not name China when he invokes the first lady’s line that “any nation that out-educates us is going to outcompete us,” but the audience will have heard for decades about formidable Asian and specifically Chinese STEM education.
Without further ado, four short passages and what I think the president and the administration are arguing with them. Emphasis added.
Argument 1: Reliance on China isn’t natural, hurts pocketbooks, and costs jobs. Independence from China creates jobs, in the Heartland. Especially in high-tech. All Americans have a claim to technological leadership.
Semiconductors, small computer chips the size of a fingerprint that power everything from cellphones to automobiles and so much more. These chips were invented in America. Let’s get that straight. They were invented in America.
And we used to make 40 percent of the world’s chips.
In the last several decades, we lost our edge. We’re down to only producing 10 percent. We all saw what happened during the pandemic when chip factories shut down overseas.
Today’s automobiles need 3,000 chips, each of those automobiles. But American automobiles couldn’t make enough cars because there weren’t enough chips.
Car prices went up. People got laid off. So did everything from refrigerators to cellphones.
We can never let that happen again.
That’s why — that’s why we came together to pass the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act.
Folks, I know I’ve been criticized for saying this, but I’m not changing my view. We’re going to make sure the supply chain for America begins in America. The supply chain begins in America.
Outside of Columbus, Ohio, Intel is building semiconductor factories on a thousand acres — literally a field of dreams.
It’s going to create 10,000 jobs, that one investment. Seven thousand construction jobs. Three thousand jobs in those factories once they’re finished — they call them factories.
Jobs paying an average of $130,000 a year, and many do not require a college degree.
Jobs — because we worked together, these jobs where people don’t have to leave home to search for opportunity.
We’re seeing these field of dreams transform the heartland.
But to maintain the strongest economy in the world, we need the best infrastructure in the world.
Argument 2: Competition with China means spending on education, which means opportunity for everyone.
You know, when we made public education — 12 years of it — universal in the last century, we became the best-educated, best-paid nation in the world.
But the rest of the world has caught up. It’s caught up.
Jill, my wife, who teaches full time, has an expression — I hope I get it right, kid. “Any nation that out-educates us is going to outcompete us.” Any nation that out-educates us is going to outcompete us.
Folks, we all know 12 years of education is not enough to win the economic competition of the 21st century.
If you want to have the best-educated work force, let’s finish the job by providing access to preschool for 3- and 4-years-old.
Studies show that children who go to preschool are nearly 50 percent more likely to finish high school and go on to earn a two- or four-year degree, no matter their background they came from.
Let’s give public-school teachers a raise.
We’re making progress by reducing student debt, increasing Pell grants for working- and middle-class families.
Let’s finish the job and connect students to career opportunities starting in high school. Provide access to two years of community college, the best career training in America, in addition to being a pathway to a four-year degree.
Let’s offer every American a path to a good career whether they go to college or not.
Argument 3: Biden has turned the tide on China’s relative rise and America’s relative decline. Tech is key for investment, allied alignment, and military modernization, to compete with China.
Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was failing in the world.
We made clear, and I’ve made clear in my personal conversations, which have been many, with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict.
But I will make no apologies that we’re investing to make America stronger. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, that China intends to be dominating.
Investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect advanced technologies so they will not be used against us.
Modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression.
Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. Anyone else in the world.
And I am committed — I’m committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world.
But make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.
Look, let’s be clear: Winning the competition should unite all of us. We face serious challenges across the world.
Argument 4: Democracy is strengthening vs. autocracy, and the Biden administration is leading this shift. Xi, meanwhile, is under pressure.
But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker.
Autocracy has grown weaker, not stronger. Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping. Name me one. Name me one.
America is rallying the world to meet those challenges, from climate to global health to food insecurity to terrorism to territorial aggression.
What have I missed?
Now for a little nostalgia…
The ghost of blogplots past
The centerpiece of my State of the Union ritual during the Obama administration was a count of how many times the president mentioned countries in Northeast Asia (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016).
This was more or less for fun, and someone has probably done a more thorough count, but sometimes I would also include other countries for contrast. Well, here is a count of countries, regions, and national leaders mentioned by Biden this year. (This is possibly incomplete, based on a visual scan and some ctrl-f behavior.)
China 5 Ukraine 5 Putin 4 Europe 3 (always in relation to Ukraine) Xi 2 Atlantic 1 Canada 1 Cuba 1 Haiti 1 Iraq 1 Ireland 1 NATO 1 Nicaragua 1 Pacific 1 Panama 1 Venezuela 1 Asia 0 India 0 Indo-Pacific 0 Iran 0 Japan 0 Mexico 0 Russia 0
Interpreting this list: Ukraine, Putin, and Europe lead with 12 mentions; China and Xi follow with 7; countries from which Biden boasts that immigration is down (Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela) get 4; regions with allies (Atlantic, Pacific, NATO) get 3; the immigration history of a couple whose daughter beat cancer (Ireland and Panama) get 2; Iraq gets one for the burn pit legislation; and Canada gets one for having a border up to which wildfires burned.
No shout-outs for any individual Indo-Pacific ally (Australia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand), nor for Asia, Asia-Pacific, or Indo-Pacific as a category.
About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.