After Spy Balloon Clash, U.S.-China Tensions Loom Over Biden’s Speech

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While Russia’s war in Ukraine presents a more urgent day-to-day foreign policy issue for President Biden and his aides, they have said repeatedly that China is the greatest long-term challenger to American power — even as the two countries maintain robust trade ties.

The spy balloon episode that unfolded in the skies above the United States last week and a resulting surge in diplomatic tensions have underscored that. Many of the Democratic and Republican lawmakers who will be in the chamber when Mr. Biden delivers his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night have been demanding answers about China’s spy balloon fleet, prior intrusions into U.S. airspace and espionage activities.

Mr. Biden could speak about the balloon in his speech and stress how he ordered the U.S. military to shoot down the floating white orb on Saturday — over waters off South Carolina, so that no one would be harmed by falling debris. In any case, he will probably highlight the much broader actions he has taken to confront and constrain China in the past year. Democratic and Republican leaders are vying to be seen as more hawkish on China than the other, and they are sensitive to any criticism that they are “soft” on the rival superpower.

Mr. Biden has followed the Trump administration in ramping up efforts to limit China’s technological advancement and the global reach of its high-tech companies. But Mr. Biden has enacted broader policies. Notably, in October, he announced the U.S. government would bar American companies from exporting advanced semiconductor chips and manufacturing equipment to China unless the companies got special licenses. The rules are also aimed at prohibiting some foreign companies from doing the same.

Since then, Japan and the Netherlands have agreed to join the United States in placing further limits on exporting semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China.

The Biden administration has also taken steps to bolster military forces around the Asia-Pacific region with an eye toward a possible armed conflict with China. The democratic, self-governing island of Taiwan, a U.S. partner that China claims is its territory, is the biggest flashpoint.

Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced during a visit to the Philippines that the U.S. military would have access to as many as nine bases around that island chain, including at sites near Taiwan, for temporary deployments.

The Biden administration has also been shaping weapons sales to Taiwan with the aim of arming the Taiwanese military with munitions and defense systems that U.S. officials think would best repel a Chinese force or deter Chinese leaders from ordering an invasion.

One question that remains in the air is whether diplomacy will improve after the spy balloon episode. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceled a weekend trip to Beijing after news of the balloon broke on Thursday, saying he would make the visit only “when conditions allow.” He had planned to be back in Washington for Mr. Biden’s State of the Union speech after a two-day stop in Beijing.

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