President Biden’s decision to shorten his upcoming Asia trip and skip a meeting of leaders of the strategic U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “Quad” group to deal with the debt crisis in Washington marks a blow to Washington’s campaign to show itself a reliable partner for countering China’s increasingly aggressive rise in the region and on the world stage.
The move also risks tarnishing U.S. influence in the Pacific, according to analysts who say it fuels perceptions that Washington is it too gripped by dysfunction and partisan bickering at home to lead the Quad, an alignment of powerful democracies that began more than a decade ago but gained momentum under former President Trump as a counter to China’s rising influence.
The cancellation proved a blow to U.S. soft power as well — Papua New Guinea had declared a national holiday to mark Mr. Biden’s expected three-hour stop in the country early next week, in what would have been the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to any Pacific Island nation.
Mr. Biden had planned to attend a much-anticipated summit with his Japanese, Indian and Australian counterparts in Sydney after attending the more broadly-focused Group of Seven economic gathering this weekend in Japan. His decision Tuesday to truncate the trip and only stop in Japan led Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to call off the summit entirely.
Mr. Albanese rejected the idea of holding the summit in Sydney without Mr. Biden, saying the Quad leaders will instead squeeze in time to talk on the sidelines of the G-7 in Japan — a far less visible and in-depth gathering than planned and one that gives Beijing an opening to argue that the Quad is not a serious grouping.
“It makes us look like we don’t follow through,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute.
“The reason the Quad is so important is because it is the most vital latent alliance for a military war machine that could come into being to counter China if the Chinese were to start to use military force in the region,” he said. “Right now the Quad is not an alliance, but it could become an alliance if the Chinese go on a war footing.”
“I understand why [Mr. Biden] had to cancel, if the alternative is going into a debt default. … But the fact that we canceled this part of the trip shows once again that U.S. administrations have trouble following through on the national interest and that’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s part of our strategy to pivot to Asia to counter Chinese assertiveness and to rally allies and partners as part of a counterweight to China’s threat.”
“It’s not our lack of commitment, but our dysfunction,” Mr. Cronin added. “Time and again, it doesn’t matter who the president is — Obama, Trump, Biden — our government fails to follow through on what we know is important in the region.”
Mr. Biden’s decision, the latest in a line of presidential trips to the region cut short by complications back in Washington, was poorly received in much of the region — and immediately trumpeted by China.
The nationalistic, state-controlled Global Times headlined its story Wednesday: “Biden skips two legs of trip, erodes US credibility.”
“It shows that when its own domestic political demands override its international agenda, the U.S. will turn back on its commitment with no hesitation,” Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University, told the Beijing news website.
Some prominent voices among U.S. allies were no less critical.
Mr. Biden’s decision to pass on stops in Australia and Papua New Guinea “will raise questions about the reliability of the United States as a regional ally, let alone its competency to manage its own affairs,” Australian Financial Review Political Editor Phillip Coorey wrote in a commentary.
Embarrassing the Aussies
The development is also likely to prove embarrassing for Australia and its prime minister.
One of the country’s flagship newspapers, The Australian, reported that literally hours prior to Mr. Biden’s pull out of the planned visit, Mr. Albanese was describing the Quad gathering as the “most important international event to be held in Australia since the G-20 [summit] in Brisbane in 2014.”
Mr. Biden’s visit was also likely to highlight progress in the new “AUKUS” alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom, including a breakthrough security deal to supply Canberra with nuclear submarines as it gears up for the challenge posed by China.
“I am pleased that President Biden has been able to take up my invitation to address parliament,” the prime minister told the paper, only to announce hours later that there will be neither an address nor a gathering of world leaders in Sydney. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly will still be coming to Sydney for bilateral talks.
Mr. Albanese told reporters on Wednesday that “the blocking and the disruption that’s occurring in domestic politics in the United States, with the debt ceiling issue, means that, … [Mr. Biden] understandably has had to make that decision.”
A different kind of disappointment was coursing through Papua New Guinea.
The strategically located island nation, which has been in the crosshairs of Cold War-style geopolitical tug-of-war between China and the U.S. in recent years, had engaged in extensive preparations for the now-scrubbed visit.
The Associated Press reported that police were tightening security, billboards were going up, and people were getting ready to sing and dance in the streets. “I am very honored that he has fulfilled his promise to me to visit our country,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape wrote on Facebook.
To be sure, many of the festivities will still be going ahead, and Mr. Modi reportedly will still meet with Pacific Island leaders. But many in Papua New Guinea told reporters they are feeling deflated.
“Everyone was excited,” said Steven Ranewa, a lawyer in the capital, Port Moresby. “But now that it’s been canceled, it’s really demoralizing.”
Washington under President Trump and President Biden has been the driving force in developing the Quad as a force in the region, arguing that the U.S. and Asia’s three most powerful democracies shared a mutual interest in upholding the rules-based international order that China’s Communist regime has vowed to challenge.
Analysts in all four of the major democracies argue the order is being eroded by China on a range of fronts, including aggressive territorial claims in international waters, intellectual property theft by companies aligned with China’s ruling communist party, and predatory lending by state-backed Chinese institutions to developing countries badly in need of foreign investment.
The Quad summit that was slated to occur in Sydney would have been the fifth such leader-level gathering of the group.
Ahead of a previous leader-level summit in 2021, a senior Biden administration official told The Washington Times that “the Quad is definitely going to be a central focus of overall U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific moving forward.”
While the concept of the Quad as a strategic forum was first suggested in 2007 by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it was embraced and openly pushed by the Trump administration, which highlighted the potential relevance of the grouping in its 2017 Indo-Pacific strategy.
Hawkish foreign policy experts described the Trump-era push as the beginning of an “Asian NATO.”
Chinese officials have bristled at the notion. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the Trump administration of using the Quad “to trumpet the Cold War mentality and to stir up confrontation” aimed at maintaining the “dominance and hegemonic system of the United States,” the South China Morning Post reported.
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