Biden’s speech to Congress – read his lips!

May 4, 2021

President Biden’s first address to Congress has provided a substantive and timely window into  his ambitions for his term of office, but also the ideology which is driving him. Its central theme was “ We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century”. Unashamedly, he argued that the US needs urgently to reform its governance to keep ahead of “ the autocracies” who have been catching up so rapidly. His early mojo – “Make America Lead Again“ not only aped Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, it also conceded that the US had to “build back better!”

Some commentators have posited that while the speech was substantial and progressive on domestic issues it was less so on foreign policy. But the real message was that Biden remains firmly convinced that domestic and foreign policy issues are inextricably intertwined. This is his vaunted “Middle Class Diplomacy”. His whole of government approach to the competition with the autocracies (read China and Russia) which some in the US have interpreted as “compete don’t complain”!

Of particular interest, was Biden’s noting that his two hour telephone call with President Xi included a frank discussion comparing the efficiency of the Chinese and US systems of government in meeting the aspirations of their peoples. – a sort of mine’s bigger than yours! Biden’s crystal clear takeaway was that Xi was “deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world”.

As an aside it is worth recalling that, in his promotion of the Asian Values debate some years ago, Lee Kuan Yew often used to denigrate some of his ASEAN partners for suffering from the “democracy quotient”. He argued that the then Asian Tigers of the ROK and Taiwan benefitted from about 2% annual GDP growth by their restriction of human rights etc!

The domestic agenda which Biden set out in the first part of his speech was in part astonishingly bold and ambitious given the wafer thin majority the Democrats enjoy in Congress and the daunting dollar figures involved. But it also was a very clear sign of his conviction how vital and urgent a raft of domestic reforms are required if the US is to be able to compete globally.

For the US, some of the proposals are bordering on revolutionary – eg. four additional years of school for all American children, large increases in tax for the rich, childcare and public health as the days of Reaganomics fade away.. But his assertion that “trickle down economics has never worked” will probably be most remembered. Education was a central theme as he claimed the US will have to “out-educate” its autocratic competitors.

Biden’s aspirations for reform clearly are very personal but the proposals he announced will also be well received by the progressive wing of the Democrats led by Bernie Sanders and others. Criticism from that group will be that they would want him to do more.  But it should help to close the Democrat ranks behind Biden as he seeks to steer the proposals through the Congress where some of the more conservative Republicans seem to be setting up for a major showdown. This is where Biden is obviously positioning the more geopolitical parts of the speech to check in. His call to the nation will probably be that any attempt by the Republicans to block his domestic agenda will put at serious risk the US efforts to regain its global leadership role.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Biden continues to choose his words extremely carefully when commenting on China. He emphasises repeatedly the competition of systems between the US and China but meticulously avoids democracy proselytizing and speaks respectfully about Xi – avoiding being drawn into criticism of the CCP or even any suggestion of confrontation. This reflects the Chinese media reports of the Biden/Xi phone conversation in which they say Xi made it abundantly clear that he would not brook any US attempt to interfere in the Chinese system.

Nor did Biden touch on specifics such as Taiwan, South China Sea etc. He did, however, assert that the US planned to retain its military presence in the Indo Pacific similar to what they have done in Europe with NATO (though the comparison is actually pretty tenuous given the comparative lack of Allies in the Indo Pacific). He also made it clear that he would not be constrained about speaking out on human rights issues. There has also been a revealing CNN report this week that in the months of discussion on China in the White House inner circle it has been Biden that repeatedly drew his advisers back to ensuring that “system competition” was the fundamental issue.

There are some serious implications in all of this for Australia. The semantics are important. In his own words, Biden has stated unequivocally that his major geopolitical goal is to regain global leadership for the United States – a key part of which involves competition with China.

Biden also recognises that his bold package of reform faces an extremely daunting challenge in the Congress and that Xi is supremely confident that China will prevail in the long run.  Some of his close advisers are permitted to talk about more specific areas of dispute with China but Biden remains very measured in his own comments. He insists that he is determined to “win” the competition with China but acknowledges that to do so requires far more than more and even better military hardware or tougher trade talks.

Biden avoids any unnecessarily provocative language. All of which poses questions for Australian policy makers : What does Washington want us to sign up to – “all the way to a regained US global leadership role”? How successful is Biden likely to be in implementing the integral domestic and foreign policy package ? How would that sit with any aspirations we might have for improving our regional relations in South East Asia?

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