(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden was headed Wednesday for a less extensive-than-desired visit to Asia, cut short by crisis talks with Republicans over the debt ceiling.
The truncated trip — during which Biden will visit only Japan — comes as solving a domestic crisis took precedence over Biden’s time on the world stage.
The president had planned to focus heavily on Russia and China during summit meetings with world leaders in Japan and Australia. He also was to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Papua New Guinea.
But on Tuesday, the White House said Biden would skip Australia and Papua New Guinea, returning early to Washington on Sunday to hammer out a deal before the U.S. defaults as soon as June 1.
Biden, under pressure, faced ‘tough decisions’
No deal appeared imminent after Biden hosted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other congressional leaders in the Oval Office Tuesday, although McCarthy did say a deal could be in hand by the end of the week.
Still, the looming threat of economic catastrophe threatened to completely overshadow Biden’s foreign travel.
The White House has argued it’s possible for Biden to handle domestic and foreign policy challenges at the same time, and the president said Tuesday he planned to stay in touch with McCarthy over the coming days.
“I made it clear to the speaker and others that we’ll speak regularly over the next several days and the staff is going to continue meeting daily to make sure we do not default,” Biden said after Tuesday’s Oval Office session.
But Biden had already come under fire from Republicans questioning his priorities and calling on him to completely cancel his trip.
“The president often has to make tough decisions about how and where he’s going to spend his time,” White House spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
A U.S. default would have dire consequences for the global economy and, Kirby noted, would harm America’s reputation abroad.
“There’s countries like Russia and China that would love nothing more than for us to default, so they can point the finger and say, ‘You see the United States is not a stable, reliable partner,'” Kirby said. “That is a high priority, as it should be, for the — for the president.”
G-7 nations to confront Russia, China
But a looming default is not keeping the president away from the annual meeting of leaders of the “Group of Seven,” or G-7, industrialized nations.
In Hiroshima, which this year is hosting the summit, Biden and his counterparts are expected to focus on maintaining pressure on Russia and countering China’s increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Four of the seven G-7 leaders met with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in recent days. They’ve already pledged more support for Ukraine as it prepares its highly anticipated counter-offensive against Russia, and while in Japan, the G-7 nations were expected to further tighten sanctions against Moscow.
The site of one of two atomic bombings of Japan by the U.S. during World War II, Hiroshima will also present an opportunity for Biden to reflect on the past amid new nuclear threats from Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Default threat harms effort to counter China
Biden’s decision to shorten his schedule will likely hamper his goal of working with allies to counter China’s growing military and economic influence in the Pacific.
His scheduled historic visit to Papua New Guinea, where he planned to meet with a host of Pacific Island leaders, had been designed to send a signal to those nations that the U.S. wants them in its orbit — instead of China’s.
And the U.S. was already playing catch-up with China, which has been courting these nations for years and whose president, Xi Jinping, visited Papua New Guinea in 2018.
In a major setback for the U.S., another archipelagic Pacific nation, the Solomon Islands, signed a security deal with China last year. In response to China’s burgeoning influence, the U.S. reopened an embassy there this year.
Biden’s visit to Australia would have also heavily focused on China.
He planned to meet with other leaders of the nations that make up the so-called “Quad”– the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — which consists of U.S., Australia, Japan and India.
Set up after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, it lost prominence for years but has become a key institution of Biden’s push to reorient American foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific.
This would have been Biden’s fourth meeting with his Quad counterparts since taking office — and third in person. The meetings often result in agreements to increase cooperation on issues like maritime security and climate change.
White House looks for ways to make it up
But even though Biden doesn’t plan to travel to Australia, he’ll still have a chance to see his Quad counterparts in Hiroshima.
Japanese Prime Fumio Kishida, who is hosting G-7 summit, had already invited his Indian and Australian counterparts, Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese, respectively, to attend; they are among the non-G7 nations who will be represented there.
Biden, Kirby said Tuesday, will meet with the Quad leaders while in Hiroshima, although it wasn’t clear if they would meet all together.
“Revitalizing and reinvigorating our alliances and advancing partnerships like the Quad remains a key priority for the president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “This is vital to our ability to advance our foreign policy goals and better promote global stability and prosperity.”
Biden called Albanese on Tuesday to inform him of his schedule change and invite him to the U.S. for an official state visit, Jean-Pierre said.
“We look forward,” she said, “to finding other ways to engage with Australia, the Quad, Papua New Guinea and the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in the coming year.”
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