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Opinion Biden commits an unforced error in the competition with China

A man in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, holds a newspaper Thursday reporting on the cancellation of a planned visit by President Biden. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

The main goal of President Biden’s current trip to Asia is to reinforce the message that Washington’s regional allies can always rely on the United States. But by pulling out of two vital stops at the last minute, the president ended up sending exactly the opposite signal. This is a shortsighted blunder that Beijing will surely exploit when courting America’s allies and partners in Asia.

Shortly after Biden touched down in Tokyo for the Group of Seven summit on Thursday, his top national security spokesman, John Kirby, outlined the administration’s approach toward Asian nations that are wary of China’s expansionist policies in the Indo-Pacific region but skeptical of U.S. commitments. Kirby said that coordinating competition with China and responding to China’s military and economic aggression would be “key on the agenda” in Japan.

“We are not asking countries to choose between the United States and China,” the spokesman told Bloomberg Politics. “What we are doing is trying to show in demonstrable ways that the United States is a reliable, stable, credible partner in this part of the world … and to give people alternatives to the coercion and intimidation that the Chinese tend to demonstrate.”

That approach makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, it can’t be reconciled with Biden’s Wednesday decision to cancel long-planned stops in Australia and Papua New Guinea so that he could return home early for debt ceiling negotiations. In Australia, the snub was rightly seen as Washington partisan political dysfunction causing real damage to U.S. foreign policy — handing Beijing an easy victory.

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“A certain way to avoid default and crisis is for U.S. leaders to remember that there is nothing inevitable about U.S. leadership, and China’s aspirations are ambitious,” Australian journalist Chris Zappone wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Biden downplayed the diplomatic damage on Wednesday by saying that the planned summit in Australia between the leaders of the “Quad” — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — would be moved to the sidelines of the G-7 meeting in Japan, which starts Friday. “We’re still meeting, we still have four good allies,” the president said.

He barely mentioned Papua New Guinea, where the members of the Pacific Islands Forum, a 10-nation consortium that coordinates economic and security policy in the Pacific, were set to meet with him. This would have been the first time a U.S. president had visited Papua New Guinea, a strategically important country that China courts heavily.

In a call Wednesday with Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, Biden said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would take his place, and he invited the leaders of the forum to Washington later this year. The White House readout didn’t mention a new bilateral defense cooperation agreement that Biden was rumored to be planning to sign there.

Experts note that this is only the latest in a long list of occasions when U.S. presidents have canceled visits to Asia because of domestic politics.

“For the Pacific, it feels like Lucy pulling the football out from Charlie Brown’s foot, again,” said Ernie Bower, the chairman of the advisory board for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It does underpin a message the Chinese are actively deploying in the Pacific, which is that you really can’t rely on the United States.”

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (twice) all pulled out of diplomatic trips to Asia because of political “emergencies.” President Donald Trump infamously planned to skip a key summit in the Philippines in 2017 to come home early for no reason at all. He later relented and went to the summit location, but then left anyway because the meeting started late.

In 2018, I accompanied Vice President Mike Pence to Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Chinese President Xi Jinping not only attended, but arrived a week earlier for a lengthy state visit. Xi was there to celebrate the opening of a new highway in Port Moresby, the capital, that leads to the new parliament building, both of which were built by China as gifts. He also met with several leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Since then, Beijing has only expanded its military, diplomatic and economic relationships with Pacific island nations, capitalizing on U.S. distraction. Countries in the Pacific, in many cases, would prefer to work with the United States rather than partner with China. But if the U.S. president can’t get his act together enough to show up when promised, regional leaders might feel they are left with no other option.

Is there really anything Biden can do regarding debt negotiations that can’t be accomplished over the phone? Is he returning to Washington just to avoid GOP criticism for being absent? Wouldn’t the president be better off politically if were able to show he can assert U.S. leadership in Asia and push back against China, while also staying involved in the debt talks? This is sometimes referred to as walking and chewing gum at the same time.

To be sure, the Biden administration deserves credit for bolstering some U.S. alliances in Asia that were damaged by Trump’s disdain for alliance management in general. But when an important country such as Australia takes a huge step toward the United States, it’s foolish to give easy talking points to those who are already skeptical about such moves.

Biden campaigned on the slogan “America is back.” But this latest misstep just reinforces the persistent sentiment among Asian nations that there is a gap between what the U.S. government practices and preaches. China’s Xi must not believe his luck.