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Anthony Albanese’s disappointment is Xi Jinping’s victory.
Joe Biden’s decision to pull out of next week’s Quad leaders’ summit in Sydney is a personal blow for the prime minister, who was preparing to bask in the glow of hosting three of the world’s most powerful leaders in his hometown.
China’s president-for-life, meanwhile, will be giddy with delight at the summit falling into disarray.
US President Joe Biden’s last-minute cancellation leaves Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s showcase summit in tatters. Credit: AP, Joe Armao
Biden flagged last week that he may have to stay in the US for emergency debt ceiling negotiations, but the official line from Washington and Canberra was the trip was going full-steam ahead. At 10.30pm on Tuesday, Albanese proudly announced Biden would address a joint sitting of Parliament next week, seemingly confirming the trip was happening. Less than nine hours later, Biden had sent his apologies.
To add insult to injury, The New York Times and Reuters were reporting the visit was cancelled long before any official confirmation went out, as officials played for time, saying it was “under a cloud”.
A no-show from a United States president will never be a good news story, but the garbled messaging makes Biden’s dismount look especially messy. Adding to perceptions of a snub, he has found time to travel to the G7 summit in Hiroshima but not to Australia or Papua New Guinea.
Far more important than any hurt feelings it has caused, Biden’s withdrawal matters because of the damaging message it sends to the Asia-Pacific about America’s commitment to the region as it fiercely competes with China for influence.
Beijing has loathed the Quad since its inception, blasting it as an “exclusive clique” and falsely characterising it as an “Asian NATO”.
In fact, the Quad is a nebulous grouping that is anything but a formal alliance. It doesn’t have an official website or a post office box, let alone a secretariat.
Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe initiated the Quad in 2007 to support what he hoped would be an “Asian Arc of Democracy”, but the group collapsed just a year later.
The Quad came back to life in the Trump era and Biden elevated it to new heights in 2021 by making it a leaders-level grouping. So far, its practical outcomes have been unremarkable: a vaccine sharing initiative that struggled to get off the ground, plus measures to track illegal fishing vessels and create a low-emission shipping network.
The group’s power – and the reason Beijing despises it so much – lies in what it represents.
While the Quad leaders never mention China by name in their official joint statements, the grouping’s reason for being is to offer an alternative to Beijing’s authoritarianism.
“We are liberal democracies and believe in a world order that favours freedom,” Scott Morrison proclaimed after the first in-person Quad leaders meeting in 2021.
With a total population size of almost 2 billion people and the possibility to later include nations such as South Korea and Canada, the Quad’s potential influence is huge.
As Kevin Rudd, now Australia’s man in Washington, has written: “Beijing has concluded that the Quad represents one of the most consequential challenges to Chinese ambitions in the years ahead.”
Xi’s nightmare is that the Quad continues gaining steam, entrenching itself as a permanent and effective feature of the region’s diplomatic architecture. Any setback for the Quad is a morale boost for Xi.
Just as unfortunate is the fact Biden will no longer travel to Papua New Guinea for what would have been the first visit by a US leader to the nation. The Pacific is the front line of US-China geostrategic competition and Biden’s failure to show up is a loss of momentum after impressive recent efforts to restore America’s standing in the region.
As former senior State Department official Evan Feigenbaum noted on Twitter: “The issue isn’t commitment but dysfunction. The US can profess to be ‘committed’ all it wants. But it’s tough to ‘lead’ when everyone you hope will follow you wonders why you keep deliberately steering toward hurling yourself off a cliff.”
Biden’s withdrawal is not unprecedented: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both skipped summits in Asia during similar domestic crises. But that’s far from comforting. The US wants to remain the leader of the free world but domestic divisions mean it now regularly struggles to keep its government from shutting down and defaulting on its debts.
The Quad summit in Sydney should have provided a powerful symbol of four proud democracies working together to get things done. Instead, it will serve to highlight the systemic problems plaguing the world’s oldest democracy and its aspirations for global leadership.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.
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