US debt row overshadows Biden's truncated Asia trip

·4-min read
President Joe Biden is attending the G7 in Hiroshima but skipping plans to visit Papua New Guinea and Australia
President Joe Biden is attending the G7 in Hiroshima but skipping plans to visit Papua New Guinea and Australia

President Joe Biden's departure Wednesday to the G7 summit in Japan was meant to launch a geostrategic masterclass on rallying the world's democracies against China.

Instead, he will limp into an abruptly truncated journey facing concerns that the US debt ceiling row is about to tear up the global economy.

Biden arrives Thursday in Hiroshima, one of the two cities hit by US atomic bombs in 1945 -- a closing chapter to World War II and the start of an era of US leadership across the Pacific that Beijing now seeks to supplant.

He will meet leaders from the rest of the G7 club -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan -- that has been crucial in the US-led drive to enforce unprecedented economic sanctions on China-ally Russia for invading Ukraine.

However, visits next week to Papua New Guinea and to a Sydney meeting of the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, were canceled so that Biden can rush back home Sunday and negotiate with Republican opponents on the debt crisis.

For a president who often warns that democracies are in an existential fight to prove their viability against the world's autocracies, it's a sobering moment.

"It's extraordinarily hard... to go to the G7 and talk about economic unity against Russia, economic unity against China, when the dysfunction is coming from inside the house," Josh Lipsky, at the Atlantic Council, said.

As he left the White House to head to Japan, Biden said "No!" when asked if the turmoil was a win for China.

"I'm confident that we'll get the agreement that we need on the budget and that America will not default," he told reporters.

But Evan Feigenbaum, a former US diplomat with the Carnegie Endowment, was brutal.

"It's tough to 'compete with China' in the Pacific when you're busy sinking your own boat," he tweeted. "How do we think we look to the rest of the world?"

- Candidate Biden enters furnace -

For Biden, 80, the trip and the debt ceiling mess come at a key time. He has just launched his reelection campaign and Americans wary about his age are watching how he copes in the furnace of the presidency at home and abroad.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden can multitask.

"He can travel overseas, and manage our foreign policy and our defense policy and look after our national security commitments in an important region like the Indo-Pacific, and also work with congressional leaders to do the right thing -- raise the debt ceiling, avoid default so that the United States credibility here at home and overseas is preserved," Kirby said.

The risks over the debt ceiling, however, are so huge -- global market panic would be just the beginning of the fallout from a default -- that Biden may spend much of his time trying to reassure fellow world leaders on the state of the US economy, rather than planning how to manage China.

Biden doesn't know whether the increasingly hard-right Republican Party will allow an increase to the debt in time to prevent default. Nor does he know whether the left of his own Democratic Party will forgive him for the compromises he may have to make to save the situation.

- Quad consolation prize -

Canceling the Papua New Guinea and Australia stops will have been a bitter pill for a president who has reinvigorated US diplomacy after the isolationist Trump years.

The Quad, an informal grouping of large democracies interested in restraining aggressive Chinese economic and military expansion across the Pacific, is one of Biden's priorities.

Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan emphasized Wednesday that those visits had simply been "postponed," not cancelled.

"We feel extremely good about where America's position is in the Indo-Pacific," he said.

And the White House pointed out that Biden will already be meeting in Japan on the sidelines of the G7 with his other Quad counterparts.

And as a consolation prize, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was extended an invitation to a state visit at the White House. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is already booked in for a state visit this June.

Yet the symbolism of the Australia stop, at a time when remote Pacific island territories and countries have become chess pieces in the geostrategic contest with China, would have been powerful.

Sullivan took issue with the idea of China grinning at Biden's troubles.

"This notion that somehow the PRC is sitting there happy and comfortable about the situation is a convenient media narrative going into this trip, but it does not reflect reality in any way," he said.