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US President Joe Biden’s decision to cancel his visit to Australia for the Quad meeting comes across as a calculated snub to a friend and a gift to a rival.
Biden has dropped his first presidential trip to Australia to return home for “final negotiations” with congressional leaders in Washington’s regular debt-ceiling pantomime. He will attend a three-day summit of G7 leaders in Japan starting on Friday but has decided to skip diplomatic visits to Australia and Papua New Guinea that were scheduled to follow.
Biden’s decision is certainly something of a personal and public slap in the face for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who had staked much on the visit. Sitting down with a trio of the world’s most powerful leaders at the Quad meeting at the Sydney Opera House could have countered the naysayers within Labor upset at the Albanese government’s embrace of the US world view and provided tangible public proof that Australia had at last been welcomed to the top table.
Not only that, the US, Japanese and Indian leaders were coming to pay homage in the PM’s home town. And this coincided with the first anniversary of Albanese’s election. Biden had also been going to address a joint sitting of parliament.
When it went belly up, Albanese said initially the government was in discussions with Tokyo and New Delhi about Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to travel to Australia, but they then decided a Tri isn’t quite a Quad and scrapped the meeting.
Albanese was also unfairly left with egg on his face by the manner in which the American decision was announced. Biden’s visit to Australia had been teetering for weeks as debt-ceiling gamesmanship continued in Washington. It was mooted that Vice President Kamala Harris could take his place as the US administration maintained the line that Biden was coming. Late on Tuesday night, Albanese even proudly announced that the president would address next week’s joint sitting of parliament. By dawn, Biden had bailed. US media were reporting Australia was out even before Canberra was officially informed.
Biden’s decision was influenced by the US Treasury warning it could run short of money to pay its bills by June 1. Of course, domestic politics takes precedence for any president with opinion poll troubles, but debt ceilings, looming defaults and government shutdowns are such a staple in US politics that they take on aspects of the boy who cried wolf.
American realpolitik is not so inwards looking and is now concentrated on containing China. So, it is quite extraordinary that Biden let slip the chance to draw a further line in the Pacific against an expansionary Beijing.
Apart from the ditching of the Australian visit, Biden had been scheduled to be the first serving US president to visit Papua New Guinea, a nation that has considerable influence on Pacific affairs.
Far more important than any hurt feelings it has caused, Biden’s withdrawal from the Quad meeting, combined with the snubbing of Australia and PNG, risks sending a damaging message across the Asia-Pacific about America’s commitment to the region as it fiercely competes with China for influence.
His decision not to visit Australia also provides weight to arguments that arrangements like AUKUS and the Quad are at the mercy of the whims of US domestic politics and not treated with due seriousness by the most influential member of the alliances.
The essence of any partnership is to value one another equally. Australia has every right to be disappointed by Biden’s willingness to go to the G7 in Japan but not find a couple of extra days to visit Australia for the Quad meeting.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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