President Joe Biden said that he has told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that the US will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific “not to start conflict, but to prevent one,” as Beijing made efforts to expand influence in the strategically vital region.

In his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Biden said he also told Xi that America welcomes competition but was not looking for conflict. “I told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe, not to start conflict, but to prevent conflict,” Biden said.

Biden said that he also told President Xi that “we welcome the competition and that we are not looking for conflict.”

“But I made absolutely clear that I will defend American interests across the board,” he added. He said America will stand up to “unfair” trade practices that undercut American workers and industries, like subsidies for state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technologies and intellectual property.

Biden also said that he told Xi what he has said to many world leaders – that America won’t back away from its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. “No responsible American president can remain silent when basic human rights are violated. A president has to represent the essence of our country,” he added.

The relations between the US and China are at an all-time low. The two countries are currently engaged in a bitter confrontation over various issues, including trade, Beijing’s aggressive military moves in the disputed South China Sea and human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang region. China claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have counter claims.

China is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Beijing has built up and militarised many of the islands and reefs it controls in the region. Both areas are stated to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources and are also vital to global trade.

In his remarks at the first virtual Summit of Quad leaders, President Biden last month said that a “free and open Indo-Pacific is essential” to all and the US was committed to working with its partners and allies in the region to achieve stability. Biden had described Quad involving the US, India, Australia and Japan – as a new mechanism to enhance cooperation and raise mutual ambition as the member states address accelerating climate change.

The Quad member states have been resolving to uphold a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. India and three other Quad member nations – the US, Australia and Japan early this month joined France in a three-day naval exercises in the eastern Indian Ocean in reflection of their growing maritime cooperation amid China’s growing efforts to expand influence in the region.

The Indian Ocean, considered the backyard of the Indian Navy, is critical for India’s strategic interests. China has been making concerted efforts to increase its presence in the region, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The US has repeatedly stressed that China is a grave threat to its national security. In December, US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said China is the greatest global threat to democracy and freedom since the end of World War II.