US President Joe Biden said Wednesday he was not seeking conflict with China or Russia as he put a renewed focus on diplomacy in his first address to Congress.
Biden nonetheless pledged to be firm against both powers and pointed to China’s growing strength to promote massive investments at home.
The trillions of dollars in investment “advance a foreign policy that benefits the middle class” but all nations must abide “by the same rules,” Biden told a subdued joint session amid Covid restrictions on attendance.
Biden said he told President Xi Jinping in a two-hour first phone conversation after taking office that “we welcome the competition — and that we are not looking for conflict.”
“But I made absolutely clear that we will defend America’s interests across the board,” he said.
“America will stand up to unfair trade practices that undercut American workers and industries, like subsidies for state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technologies and intellectual property,” he said.
“I also told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe — not to start a conflict but to prevent one,” Biden said to applause.
In an aside that was not in prepared remarks, Biden noted his extensive dealings with Xi when both were vice presidents — and warned that China’s most powerful leader in years had firm plans for the future.
“He’s deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” Biden said.
Tensions have sharply risen with China over the past few years as the United States also take issue with China’s assertive military moves and human rights concerns, including what Washington has described as genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.
The speech marked a shift from the hawkish nationalism of his predecessor Donald Trump, with Biden repeatedly speaking of global cooperation.
“There is no wall high enough to keep the virus out,” Biden said, alluding to Trump’s cherished wall on the Mexican border.
Biden similarly said he did not seek worse relations with Russia.
In his first three months in office, Biden has imposed sanctions over Russia’s purported poisoning of ailing dissident Alexei Navalny and over its alleged interference in US elections and hacking operations.
But Biden has also proposed a summit in a third country with President Vladimir Putin to bring stability to relations and pointed in his speech to cooperation on climate change and the extension of New START, the last Cold war nuclear reduction treaty.
“I made very clear to Putin that we are not going to seek escalation but their actions will have consequences,” Biden said.
Flipping the language of George W. Bush when used the same platform nearly two decades ago to assail an “axis of evil,” Biden vowed diplomacy on the “serious threat” of the nuclear programs of both Iran and North Korea.
“We’ll be working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by both of these countries through diplomacy and stern deterrence,’” Biden said.
The United States is holding indirect talks with Iran in Vienna in a bid to re-enter a denuclearization accord trashed by Trump.
The Biden administration is separately reviewing policy on North Korea after Trump’s unusually personal diplomacy that included three meetings with leader Kim Jong Un.
Vowing to exert US leadership, Biden also said he was reasserting US priorities by ending “the forever war” in Afghanistan — where he is pulling out remaining troops after 20 years.