President Joe Biden’s speech before a joint session of Congress last April made it clear that he views competition with China and “rescue and renewal” at home as inextricably interlinked. In other words, Biden’s domestic policy is his China policy.
In his speech, Biden focused on his two major proposals for “once-in-a-generation investments in our nation’s future”: the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. Together, these plans propose making a massive $4.1 trillion investment into the United States’ economy, infrastructure, and society. While these proposals are domestic in nature, Biden made it clear that central to his rationale for making the investments is the long-term aim to “outcompete” China. As Biden put it, “we’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century” and that to “win that competition for the future [...] we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.”
The fact sheets recently published by the White House for the two proposals also reflect this thinking explicitly. The American Jobs Plan fact sheet states that the plan would “position the United States to out-compete China” and “unify and mobilize the country to meet [...] the ambitions of an autocratic China.” Similarly, the American Families Plan fact sheet states that it would “reinvest in the future of the American economy and American workers, and will help us out-compete China.”
While the Biden administration has not gone as far as to adopt the rhetoric of a civilizational or existential struggle between the United States and China, unlike the Trump administration, Biden has nonetheless made it clear he is committed to ensuring that China does not surpass the United States. As Biden put it, China has “an overall goal to become the leading country in the world [...]. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
As Daniel Drezner points out, the Biden administration is trying to “persuade China that the narrative of US decline is erroneous.” The 2008 financial crisis convinced many Chinese elites that unipolarity had given way to irreversible multipolarity, giving rise to Beijing’s declinist narrative of the United States. But as Julian Gewirtz, a China director on the National Security Council, notes, the perception among many Chinese elites is now that the Trump presidency “pushed that slow process into a new phase of sharp and irreversible deterioration.”
Consider that a week before Trump was inaugurated in 2017, as Rush Doshi, also a China director on the NSC, observes, a new phrase debuted, that the world is experiencing “great changes unseen in a century,” which has since gone on to appear in many of President Xi Jinping’s major speeches, official white papers, and articles by Chinese scholars. Essential to this assessment is that the United States is in decline and is now, as spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry Zhao Lijian put it, “merely a far cry from the major power it used to be.”
During the first bilateral meeting in Anchorage in March, the Biden administration’s determination to push back against this narrative of decline was demonstrated to Chinese officials directly. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi against believing that the United States has “lost its ability to speak from a position of strength,” stressing that “it’s never a good bet to bet against America.”
Framing proposals for massive domestic investments alongside the “China challenge” can serve as an effective way for the Biden administration to try and mobilize support for them in the first place. Needing broad support for domestic investment has been made all the more important since the Republican party has suddenly rediscovered its concern for budget deficits post-Trump, sometimes with brazen openness about their hypocrisy. As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution observes, Senate Republicans are in no doubt aware that they “cannot afford four years of legislative gridlock if [the United States] is to compete with China.” A poll conducted by the Chicago Council last December found that Republicans regard the “development of China as a world power” as the main “critical threat” to the United States. As such, invoking China may be key to Biden’s ability to pursue his restorationist domestic policy agenda with bipartisan support.
While Biden, in his speech, did not appear to follow President Harry Truman’s approach of trying to “scare the hell out of the American people” for public support, Biden appears to have learned from President Dwight Eisenhower that the most effective way to sell an infrastructure program is through a national security pitch. The Biden administration may find itself increasingly aided in this effort if media outlets continue to increasingly frame domestic investments as part of U.S. competition with China. Reuters, for instance, recently framed the delay of the “Endless Frontier Act,” a Senate infrastructure bill which proposes investing $112 billion in basic and advanced research in technology, as “US legislation on China to be delayed.”
The Trump administration often invoked “infrastructure week” as a way to distract from political controversies to the point that it became something of a running joke in Washington that every week was infrastructure week. Given the Biden administration’s linkage of its domestic policy with its China policy, coupled with the increasing push by some Democrats to redefine what can be regarded as infrastructure, a proper “infrastructure week” may finally see its day.
Rupert Schulenburg is a MPhil International Security Studies student at the University of St Andrews with a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His research interests include U.S. grand strategy, security in the Asia-Pacific, U.S. policy towards China, U.S. alliance politics, international order, and liberal-internationalism.