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White House making changes to China section of State of the Union speech after balloon is shot down

The changes are not expected to include new policy pronouncements in response to the surveillance balloon, one source told NBC News.
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WASHINGTON — Some of the lines in President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address that refer to China are being edited after the shooting down of the surveillance balloon that had made its way across the U.S. last week, according to three people familiar with the speech.

Parts of the draft remarks for Tuesday night’s speech, which has long included a section on China, could be tweaked after the balloon captured the attention of Americans and drew the ire of Republicans, who have criticized both the president and his administration for their handling of the situation, the sources said.

The discussion among Biden and his aides is how much sharper his rhetoric on China should be, the sources said, with some administration officials making the case that dialing it up too much could be counterproductive as the president continues to navigate the battered relationship between Washington and Beijing.

One White House official said, “We’ve been clear we will defend American values and advance our interests while maintaining open lines of communication with China.”

Another White House official, who was asked if there would be a specific mention of the balloon in Biden's speech, said: “It will likely fall more broadly under a larger umbrella of major foreign policy themes reasserting America’s leadership on the world stage."

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1, 2023.
A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1. Larry Mayer / The Billings Gazette via AP file

Before the White House admitted publicly that it had been monitoring the surveillance balloon for days after it entered U.S. airspace, Biden’s speech featured familiar language he’s used before on taking a tough, domestic political stance against China, the sources said. Now, they said, it’s changing to convey that his administration won’t tolerate such violations by China, possibly noting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his planned trip to Beijing because of the balloon incident. The speech, the sources said, will not include announcing a substantive plan for retaliation against China.

A second White House official said that “the president’s foreign policy vision and agenda has always been a part of this speech,” including the importance of “managing our strategic competition with China.”

“Of course, the president’s remarks always take into account what’s happening in the world and how we meet the moment we’re in,” the official said. “But you will hear the president speak to his continued and successful effort to reassert America’s leadership around the world.”

Biden has often framed his economic agenda as not only about supporting America’s middle class, but also positioning the country to better compete globally and regain an edge over China. “Folks, we risk losing the edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up,” Biden said last week at an infrastructure event in New York.

At the same time, his administration has increasingly focused on China as a growing military threat as well, particularly how it’s building up to compete with the U.S. on that front and saber rattling on Taiwan.

One of the sources familiar with the changes being made to Biden’s address said that while the speech is not expected to include specific new policy pronouncements in response to the surveillance balloon, the editing process was still ongoing.