Predictably, U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech this week was framed by some as a “dramatic warning to China.” This rested on quotes such as, “Make no mistake, as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.” However, the case was not all that convincing, as such direct references to China actually represented just one minute and 46 seconds of the speech, while sections on “domestic” issues such as healthcare (eight minutes and 57 seconds) and the economy (six minutes and 56 seconds) were far longer. Simplistic China-takes thus read like a man with a hammer: All they saw was China. (Or something like that.)
A more convincing case that this speech was actually very much about China is this: The more compensatory domestic economic offers in the speech actually might not have made it in without competition with China.
Why would anyone think this? Well, they could have read the words of the man who currently serves as Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. In 2020 his Foreign Policy piece, written before Biden took office, he outlined how someone at the heart of the Biden administration believes America’s national security, domestic and economic issues are always in a back and forth dialogue with one another and, crucially, how he believes that emphasizing a policy’s national security advantages helps it be taken seriously enough to be taken up.
Translated over into Biden’s speech, that could mean the following. When Biden discusses the “the Cancer Moonshot that President Obama asked me to lead in our Administration,” of course it speaks to domestic healthcare imperatives, and of course it speaks to a standard democratic electoral appeal. But its path into the speech may have been eased because someone like Sullivan has emphasized the value of industrial policy in terms of competition with China, pointing out “the manufacturing base necessary to produce essential goods — from military technologies to vaccines — in a crisis.” (He actually used the same frame of going to the Moon to illustrate his point in the Foreign Policy piece.)
Or: When Biden says “I propose that we quadruple the tax on corporate stock buybacks to encourage long-term investments instead,” of course it speaks to the idea that longer term investment tends to be popular. But it may also hint that people like Sullivan have pointed out to other policy makers that without industrial policy (“government actions aimed at reshaping the economy”) “U.S. firms will continue to lose ground in the competition with Chinese companies [with] Washington continu[ing] to rely so heavily on private sector research and development, which is directed toward short-term profit-making applications rather than long-term, transformative breakthroughs.”
This description of economic and domestic policy as politically bound to geopolitical positioning/national security/competition with China would not be a surprise to the likes of economic historian Robert Brenner of University of California, Los Angeles. His latest piece for New Left Review argued that more compensatory economic offers to workers in the U.S. have always tended to come from efforts toward “wartime mobilization” and are pushed through by bureaucrats like Sullivan, rather than sudden bouts of generosity or enlightenment across government or pushes from working-class politics from below. Sullivan’s piece offers an insight into how this might play out within the Biden administration. “Mobilization” doesn’t here mean offering the electorate a better economic deal to buy their support for a competition with China (though that isn’t to rule this out elsewhere). Rather, it means part of the reason the current economic offer is getting through might be that it is being validated at the top level by its apparent usefulness in competition with China.
Thus, Biden’s State of the Union speech only touched on China directly for about a minute and a half. And, of course, this argument is a necessary but not sufficient explanation of policy decisions. But if the U.S. wasn’t engaged in competition with China right now, Biden’s National Security Advisor is one person who likely believes much of the rest of the speech would have sounded quite different too.
Image: Twitter @POTUS
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