President Joe Biden will turn partially away from the unfolding war in the Middle East to host Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for an official state visit today. The meetings will largely focus on the part of the world Biden’s administration wants to prioritize long-term, despite other conflicts abroad: Asia.
The theme of the event will be “innovation,” according to senior Biden administration officials, and the leaders plan to announce a new submarine cable project to provide reliable internet for Pacific Island countries as part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment — a U.S.-led effort widely viewed as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Biden and Albanese will also announce joint plans for wharf projects on Pacific Island countries to boost commerce and travel, one senior administration official said. Also on the menu: New cooperation on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and critical minerals, and plans for U.S. space launches from Australia.
This will be Biden’s fourth state visit as president, showcasing the importance his administration places on Australia and its role in the administration’s strategy to counter China.
One of the more significant undertakings of the U.S.-Australia partnership under the Biden administration has been AUKUS, a partnership with the U.K. to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to counter China’s growing military power in the region.
The pact enjoys broad support, but disagreements over funding for submarine production in the U.S. and export controls affecting defense technology have held up movement on key authorizations in Congress. The current House fight over the next speaker isn’t helping things.
The administration requires approval from Congress to transfer Virginia-class submarines Australia has agreed to purchase from the U.S.
The Australians have publicly expressed some frustration: Australia’s ambassador to the U.S. Kevin Rudd suggested at a recent gathering that stringent export controls were needlessly hampering the pact.
Biden plans to assure Albanese that the U.S. will follow through on its commitments, a second senior Biden administration official said.
In addition to meetings at the White House and State Department, Albanese will also huddle with bipartisan Senate leaders and other senators on Capitol Hill on Thursday, according to an aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The state dinner will attract bipartisan guests, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
It’s a difficult time for a White House facing multiple crises to be hosting a state visit complete with a lavish dinner: All the pomp and circumstance also risks looking insensitive as Israel grapples with a terror attack and officials scramble to fend off a humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
In a nod to those considerations, first lady Jill Biden announced Tuesday afternoon that the White House was scrapping plans for zany rock legends, the B-52s, to play at the dinner, and that instrumental music would instead be offered by the U.S. Marine Band.
“We are now in a time when so many are facing sorrow and pain, so we made a few adjustments to the entertainment portion of the evening,” the first lady said.
As White House officials and experts will note, juggling multiple priorities is in the president’s job description. “The duties and responsibilities are literally global,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a briefing Tuesday afternoon, assessing that Biden is “balancing it well.”
The two leaders will probably spend more time than they would have discussing challenges that aren’t China when the visit was originally planned back in August. But Beijing will still dominate the conversation, especially with Albanese’s announcement that he will visit China in early November in a major sign that relations between the two countries are easing. The U.S. has similarly sent top officials to Beijing to manage high tensions, and is laying the groundwork for a meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the upcoming APEC summit in San Francisco.
Biden and Albanese are expected to compare notes ahead of the prime minister’s China trip. The U.S. and Australia are aligned in their assessments of China and what it’s trying to do under Xi, said Charles Edel, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There’s a really useful series of questions that they will be asking, and assessments that they will be thinking through when they’re together,” Edel told Semafor.
Another pressing issue will be the recent collision of Chinese warships with Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, waters where Beijing’s military has grown increasingly aggressive in recent years.
Room for Disagreement
Officials insist that this is precisely the moment for Biden to champion an important U.S. alliance. “There’s never been a more important time to stand side-by-side with a close ally in the Indo-Pacific,” the first senior administration official said.
Edel also noted that Biden and Albanese would be able to have productive conversations behind the scenes about how to approach the conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, even though Australia will play less of an active role in the former when compared to the U.S.
“Part of the point of having two such close allies getting together — quite apart from the public pomp and circumstance that we’re likely to see — is for President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese to compare notes, discuss what areas require further cooperation, and decide what policies demand further action,” he said.