US President Joe Biden’s decision not to attend a summit of the Quad countries in Sydney is disappointing but not unexpected. Given the perilous negotiations in Washington to avert a default on government debt, it is more surprising that Biden is still intending travel to the G7 meeting in Japan.
A budget spending default means government services shut down, and it has happened before. I have visited the Pentagon when only essential staff were at their posts and others furloughed at home without salary.
No president can afford to be overseas when the national government grinds to a halt. One might puzzle at the strangeness of the world’s most consequential military power shutting up shop, but the cost of the Covid-19 spending spree will damage many democracies in time.
Hitting the congressionally mandated debt ceiling was not a surprise, only a matter of time. That this domestic economic crisis crashed into Biden’s own international agenda is hardly an endorsement of White House crisis management skills.
Then there’s the President’s age. White House staff manage Biden’s travel to reduce the number of long-haul flights. As President, Biden has visited a country south of the equator only once: Indonesia for the G20 in November last year.
Biden’s last international visit was to the United Kingdom and Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Biden has never been the clearest speaker, and it was sad to watch his mental sharpness decline, judging from his scripted and off-the-cuff public remarks.
Managing who the President sees, where he goes, what and when he does things will increasingly preoccupy Biden’s team. The great pity about cancelling the Sydney visit is that the Australia-US relationship could hardly be in a better shape. Scott Morrison’s AUKUS initiative, carried forward by Anthony Albanese, is the most important development in the alliance since the ANZUS Treaty was signed in 1951.
Alliances build real momentum for strategic change when political leaders drive them. For AUKUS to succeed in delivering nuclear-powered submarines and advanced military technology, Biden and Albanese need to set a priority and pace for activity that officials must sprint to deliver.
The planned Quad leaders meeting in Sydney, bringing together Albanese and Biden with prime ministers Narendra Modi of India and Fumio Kishida of Japan, would have been Australia’s most significant international meeting this year.
What has given the Quad purpose and priority has been the political endorsement of the four leaders. Absent that sustaining drive, any political forum risks defaulting to the more cautious instincts of officials.
What makes the Quad uniquely valuable is that it draws together the Indo-Pacific’s four most consequential democracies in an effort to counter Beijing’s authoritarian urge to dominate the region.
Hopefully in Hiroshima the G7 will create an opportunity to bring the Quad leaders together anyway. Japan and the US are G7 leaders, the Australian and Indian prime ministers are invited guests. That could most likely lead to a Quad side meeting that sustains leadership engagement.
Biden also was due to become the first sitting US president to visit Papua New Guinea, where he also would have met Prime Minister James Marape and the leaders of other Pacific Islands Forum countries.
The US has made important ground with Pacific Island nations in the past few years, rebuilding a strategic presence and establishing new relationships in ways that weaken Beijing’s “money power” with island elites.
Washington is close to signing a defence co-operation agreement with PNG that would increase US military visits, exercises, fuel storage and logistic support.
This is an immensely useful development. In the blunt assessment of US Pacific Air Forces commander General Kenneth Wilsbach, talking with Japan’s Nikkei Asia: “Obviously we would like to disperse in as many places as we can to make the targeting problem for the Chinese as difficult as possible.
“A lot of those runways where we would operate from are in the Pacific Island nations.”
Military commanders think in terms of combat, but the closer relationships needed for defence co-operation hopefully will deter conflict from ever happening. AUKUS, the Quad and closer ties with the Pacific Islands sustain peace by building greater deterrence against Chinese aggression.
Another reason to be disappointed about Biden’s cancellation is that Albanese won’t hear directly from the President the likely American dismay at our failure to lift defence spending after the much-hyped review by Stephen Smith and Sir Angus Houston.
After promising the biggest defence shake-up in decades, the government’s mocked-up version of a public Defence Strategic Review delivered no new funding in the next four years, yet another review of the navy’s surface fleet and a botched redesign of the army aimed at saving money rather than modernising the force.
Australia’s closest supporters in Washington will be mystified by this development. As the Americans see it, they think they are going the extra mile to support Australia by giving us access to nuclear-powered submarine technology.
When Australia takes its foot off the defence accelerator the US will wonder what possible judgment we are making about Beijing’s trajectory that could justify such a bizarre change of strategic direction.
Washington is constantly assessing whether Australia is really up to the demands that AUKUS co-operation implies.
Failing to back our defence rhetoric with funding will have been noted. That type of complacency garners no presidential visits when other priorities are pressing.