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President Joe Biden delivers a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on May 17, 2023 in Washington. Biden said he would keep in contact with the principal negotiators while he is in Japan for the G7 summit. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden will not travel to Australia and Papua New Guinea after the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, as originally scheduled. Instead, he will return to Washington to engage in talks with Congress about raising the national debt ceiling. The decision is a mistake. 

The visits would have provided demonstrable U.S. support for Australia and Papua New Guinea in the struggle to contain China’s expanding influence and aggression in the Indo-Pacific. A visit to Papua New Guinea would have been a first for a U.S. president — a strong symbol of resistance to China’s increasing pressure against states of the region and a major example of U.S. determination to rekindle ties forged during World War II. It also would underscore the importance of the Southwest and South Pacific for U.S. diplomacy. 

The signing of a historic security pact between the two countries is now postponed. Yet, these states are the front line in the competition with China, and abandoning the meeting with short notice stalls the momentum that the U.S. was building. Now it will take more time and effort to repair the relationship.

A visit to Australia would have included a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — the “Quad” of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. With this meeting canceled, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi instead will meet with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. But the Quad gathering would have been consequential: four major democratic states discussing cooperation against the threats that China poses. 

Again, Biden’s visit to Australia would have been the first by a U.S. president since 2014. He would have addressed a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament on Tuesday and, on Wednesday, would have attended a Quad meeting at the Sydney Opera House. Biden’s absence will reinforce doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally. A superpower must be able to conduct important fiscal debates while simultaneously advancing its diplomacy against its major enemy.  Australian foreign policy commentators have expressed concerns that U.S. domestic politics are of greater concern to Biden than the security of critical U.S. allies.

The rationale for abridging the trip is not convincing. History shows the debt talks will not be resolved before the 11th hour of the de facto deadline, which is as soon as June 1. Whether or not Biden had traveled to Papua New Guinea and Australia, staffers in Washington would continue to negotiate with Congress. If necessary, urgent meetings can be held by video conferencing. 

It’s likely that an agreement on the debt ceiling will be reached only at the last minute. So, aborting the trips undoubtedly makes Biden look weak to many foreign observers. He will not have resolved the issue in good time and will have incurred the cost of canceled visits overseas. In essence, the decision sacrifices the visits to Australia and Papua New Guinea for no good reason — most likely to the delight of China’s leadership. 

Additionally, and unfortunately, Biden’s truncated foreign travel schedule inevitably will cause some U.S. allies and foes to raise the issue of the president’s physical stamina and ability to meet the ceaseless obligations of holding the world’s most demanding position. 

Despite these setbacks, there was a positive development this week. Former United Kingdom Prime Minister Liz Truss traveled to Taiwan, where she urged the West to stand with the Taiwanese against China’s aggression and said Europe’s future is “inextricably linked” to Taiwan. Visits by U.K. and European officials, even former officials, is a positive step for signaling to China that Taiwan is not standing alone. Any attack or embargo of the island would violate the interests of Western states. 

Truss’s visit helps repair damage done by French President Emmanuel Macron’s disastrous comments in April, when he suggested that Europe should not be brought into the dispute involving Taiwan’s independence and that Europe should keep its distance from U.S.-led foreign policy, lest Europe become one of “America’s followers.” Still, work remains to demonstrate immediate, tangible British and European states’ diplomatic and military support for Taiwan.

Of the issues caused by Biden’s canceled visits, most important is the U.S. commitment to the Quad and to Australian and Papua New Guinean security. The Biden administration now will have to prioritize meetings with these countries and the Pacific Island Forum. A meeting of the Quad should be rescheduled soon; a physical meeting of democratic leaders sends a powerful message to China. It also could provide the opportunity to deepen the Quad, by creating a secretariat to provide a permanent bureaucracy and broadening the group to include Taiwan, the Philippines and Great Britain.  

The visits to Australia and Papua New Guinea should be rescheduled at the earliest opportunity and, if time permits, should include other states in the region. At the very least, the U.S. should sign a security pact with Papua New Guinea as soon as possible. The Biden administration has made a strategic misstep, but could repair the damage by acting expeditiously. 

Bradley A. Thayer is director of China policy at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of “Understanding the China Threat.”

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