U.S. president Biden scraps planned visit to Australia, PNG to focus on debt limit talks

Joe Biden. File photo

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday he’s curtailing his upcoming trip to the Indo-Pacific, scrapping what was to be a historic stop in Papua New Guinea as well as a visit to Australia for a gathering with fellow leaders of the so-called Quad partnership so he can focus on debt limit talks in Washington.

The cancellation is a foreign policy setback for an administration that has made putting a greater focus on the Pacific region central to its global outreach.

Biden said he still plans to depart on Wednesday for Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven summit with leaders from some of the world’s major economies. He will return to the U.S. on Sunday.

“I’m postponing the Australia portion of the trip and my stop in Papua New Guinea in order to be back for the final negotiations with congressional leaders,” Biden said at the start of a Jewish American Heritage Month event at the White House. He added, “The nature of the presidency is addressing many of the critical matters all at once. So I’m confident we’re going to continue to make progress toward avoiding the default and fulfilling America’s responsibility as a leader on the world stage.”

Biden said he spoke to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese earlier on Tuesday to inform him he was postponing a visit to Australia and invited him to Washington for an official state visit at a yet-to-be determined date. White House staff broke the news to Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape.

“The President spoke to Prime Minister Albanese earlier today to inform him that he will be postponing his trip to Australia.  He also invited the Prime Minister for an official state visit at a time to be agreed by the teams.  The President’s team engaged with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea’s team to inform them as well.

“Revitalising and reinvigorating our alliances and advancing partnerships like the Quad remains a key priority for the President,” Karine Jean-Pierre said. “This is vital to our ability to advance our foreign policy goals and better promote global stability and prosperity. We look forward to finding other ways to engage with Australia, the Quad, Papua New Guinea and the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in the coming year.”

Biden had been scheduled to travel on to Papua New Guinea to meet with Pacific Island leaders and then to Australia for a meeting of the leaders of the Quad partnership, made up of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. The Papua New Guinea stop would have been the first visit by a sitting U.S president to the island country of more than nine million people.

The Quad partnership first formed during the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people. Since coming into office, Biden has tried to reinvigorate the Quad as part of his broader effort to put greater U.S focus on the Pacific and counter increasing economic and military assertiveness by China in the region.

Biden announced his decision soon after he wrapped up a meeting on Tuesday afternoon with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies for talks on the debt limit standoff.

Earlier Tuesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby expressed administration officials’ frustration that the debt talks are having an impact on the president’s dealings on the international stage.

“We wouldn’t have to have this conversation. I wouldn’t have to answer these questions if Congress just did the right thing,” Kirby said.

Kirby noted that Biden would meet with Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while in Japan as well as Pacific Island leaders. Biden already had plans to hold a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the Hiroshima visit.

With the brief stop in Papua New Guinea to meet with Pacific Island leaders, Biden had hoped to demonstrate that the United States is committed to remaining engaged for the long term in the Pacific Islands.

The area has received diminished attention from the U.S. in the aftermath of the Cold War and China has increasingly filled the vacuum — through increased aid, development and security cooperation. Biden has said that he’s committed to changing that dynamic. Last September, Biden hosted leaders from more than a dozen Pacific Island countries at the White House, announcing a new strategy to help to assist the region on climate change and maritime security. His administration also recently opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and has plans to open one in Kiribati.

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