A planned summit of Quad leaders from the United States, India, Australia, and Japan in Sydney next week has been canceled after US President Joe Biden pulled out of his visit, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Wednesday, adding that talks could still proceed as leaders visit Japan.
Biden was slated to gather with Albanese, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on May 24 for a meeting of the informal security dialogue, which is widely seen as a counter to China’s aggressive posture in the region.
The late hour cancellation – which also saw Biden pull out of a visit to Papua New Guinea – comes as the US seeks to energize its security ties in the Pacific amid rising competition with Beijing.
But Washington’s fractious domestic politics has curtailed what would have been a significant visit to Asia by a US president.
Biden had been planning to travel to Sydney for the summit as part of a weeklong Asia tour that was set to begin in Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven (G7) leader summit, and include a stopover in Papua New Guinea for a meeting with Pacific Island leaders.
Biden will still travel to Japan starting Wednesday, but he canceled the additional legs of the trip, due to the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations in Washington, the White House confirmed Tuesday.
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The Quad leaders would instead have discussions in Japan, where all four leaders would be over the weekend, Albanese said Wednesday, adding that no time had been confirmed.
“The Quad is an important body and we want to make sure that it occurs at leadership level and we’ll be having that discussion over the weekend,” the Australian leader said.
The meeting would be the third in-person leaders gathering for the Quad, known formally as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was founded over 15 years ago but has seen increased prominence in recent years.
The leaders were expected to discuss deepening their cooperation on a range of issues from critical and emerging technologies, to climate change and maritime domain awareness, according to a statement released by the White House last month.
Albanese said the other Quad leaders could still visit Sydney next week and that discussions are underway.
The Australian leader also hinted at Biden’s frustration that events on Capitol Hill had forced his hand.
Biden and Albanese spoke over the phone early Wednesday, when Biden expressed his disappointment “at some of the actions of some members of Congress and the US Senate,” Albanese said.
“It is behavior that clearly is not in the interests of the people of the United States, but it’s also because the US has a critical role as the world’s largest economy. It has implications for the global economy as well, this hold up of the debt ceiling that they’re engaged with,” Albanese said.
Biden has been meeting with lawmakers in Washington as the White House scrambles to avert a potential government default. Congress has failed to come to an agreement on raising the country’s debt ceiling, though negotiations are ongoing.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Thursday said a default could trigger a global economic downturn, “risk undermining US global economic leadership,” and raise questions about America’s ability to defend its national security interests.
Both the Quad meeting in Sydney and Biden’s planned Monday stopover in Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby had been seen by observers as opportunities to strengthen US partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.
The region has taken on a greater importance for Washington as China becomes increasingly assertive over its territorial claims in regional seas, expands its naval capabilities and militarizes islands in the South China Sea.
Beijing has also ramped up its military intimidation of Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island China’s ruling Communist Party claims as its territory. Last month, Beijing launched military drills around the island in retaliation for a visit between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.
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In Port Moresby, Biden had been slated to meet Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and other leaders from the region’s Pacific Island Forum.
The visit, highly anticipated by the Marape government as a potential economic boon, was the latest step by the US to re-engage in the South Pacific – a strategically significant region widely seen as having been largely overlooked by Washington since the close of the Cold War.
China has in recent years elevated its own diplomatic outreach in the region and made significant inroads with some Pacific Islands governments, including the signing of a bilateral security deal with the Solomon Islands last year.
Biden’s visit to Port Moresby would have been the first by a sitting US President and would have coincided with negotiations between the two countries on a defense cooperation agreement.
Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation think tank in the US, said the impact of the cancellation of the Quad meeting in Sydney might be “negligible,” as the grouping already had “good momentum” from previous meetings.
The cancellation of Monday’s visit to Papua New Guinea, however, could have more far-reaching consequences for US policy toward the Pacific Islands, he said.
The US “has done a good job in elevating its game in the region, but this missed (Papua New Guinea) visit will serve as evidence to the contrary – essentially that Washington is an unreliable partner over the long-term,” he said.
“This feeds directly into Beijing’s narrative and could strengthen its hand,” he said.