US debt row overshadows Biden’s truncated Asia trip

WASHINGTON (AFP): President Joe Biden’s departure Wednesday to the G7 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 so 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 summit of the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, were canceled so that Biden can rush back Sunday and negotiate with Republican opponents on the debt ceiling.

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.

Biden downplayed the reshuffling of his schedule, saying, “the nature of the presidency is addressing many critical matters all at once.”

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 crucial time. He has just launched his re-election 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 multi-task.

“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. And he also doesn’t 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.

The White House was quick to point out that Biden will already be meeting in Japan on the sidelines of the G7 with his other Quad counterparts.

And a consolation prize for Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was extended in the form of 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.

But Washington is likely to rue the missed opportunity in Papua New Guinea, where Biden would have been the first serving US president to visit. The symbolism, at a time when remote Pacific island territories and countries have become chess pieces in the geostrategic contest with China, would have been powerful.