‘We Will Act to Protect Our Country’: Biden Addresses China During State of the Union

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President Joe Biden took a defiant stance toward Beijing during his State of the Union speech Tuesday, just three days after the U.S. military shot down a spy balloon that flew over the continental United States.

“Make no mistake, as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. “And we did.” Calling out China’s increasingly autocratic leader, Biden went off-script and shouted, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping.”

The U.S. Navy is now scouring the Atlantic Ocean to collect remnants of the mammoth air balloon that seized Americans’ attention and triggered an international dispute. The U.S. military is hunting information to understand how a fleet of high-altitude balloons carrying cameras and solar arrays was able to traverse American airspace on multiple occasions for years without detection.

The diplomatic fallout has been considerable, widening the fissures between Washington and Beijing in several places. The Pentagon admitted Tuesday that China’s defense minister Wei Fenghe declined a request to speak to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after an American fighter jet shot-down the balloon. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing on Friday hours before he was set to depart, scuttling an opportunity for a diplomatic détente on shared global challenges.

During his speech, Biden said he’s told President Xi he doesn’t want the two nations to take a war footing. “I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict,” he said.

Read more: Chinese Balloon Wreckage Could Offer Clues Into Years-Long Spy Operation

Outright conflict between the world’s top two economies would dwarf the damage to the global economy wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. and China have intertwined supply chains, international governance mechanisms, and bilateral trade that reached a record $760 billion last year.

But the two nations also face resurgent nationalism, concerted military build-ups, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric on both sides. And so, the great power competition between the U.S. and China is becoming more militarized.

China is expanding its nuclear forces and increasing its threats toward the U.S.-allied island of Taiwan. The U.S. is responding by strengthening alliances across the Asia-Pacific region and sending additional forces and firepower to places like Guam and the Philippines.

“Let’s be clear: winning the competition with China should unite all of us,” Biden said. “We face serious challenges across the world.”

Republicans in Congress have urged the administration to be more aggressive, a sentiment that’s deepened since the balloon flyover. “China’s spying on us,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, shouted at the president when he mentioned the competition between the two countries.

Read more: How The Chinese Balloon Was Shot Down By the U.S. Military

Earlier on Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee held its first hearing of the year, focusing on China. “We have to stop being naive about the threat we face from China,” Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the Republican committee chairman, said in his opening statement. “We no longer have the luxury of time. We need to act now to get ahead of this threat.”

The Biden Administration has labeled Beijing as a “pacing challenge” that holds the potential to reshape the international order. In recent years, as it has amassed economic power, China has forged close ties with governments in Africa, Latin America, and Central and Southeast Asia.

The Administration has determined that Beijing is planning a threefold increase in nuclear warheads to 1,000 by 2030, while simultaneously constructing hundreds of new silos capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles, potentially targeting the U.S. and its far-flung nuclear forces. While the U.S. has more than 10 to 1 advantage over China in the number of nuclear warheads and the weapons to deliver them, the Pentagon sees a need to prepare for the decades ahead.

But China faces challenges at home, as it struggles to emerge from COVID-19 and to overcome economic headwinds and an aging population. Biden seeks to tighten the pressure on President Xi. In his first two years, Biden has reinforced military ties with Australia and Japan aimed at reining in China’s regional ambitions and he’s successfully lobbied the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to work together to address challenges that China poses.

—With reporting by Mini Racker/Washington.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com