How Biden’s curtailed trip affects his goals for Asia and democracy

·7-min read

As President Joe Biden meets with his G-7 colleagues in Hiroshima, Japan, this weekend, he’s taking up an agenda of timely issues, from increased Western support for Ukraine to international regulation of artificial intelligence.

The leaders of host Japan, the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Italy announced new economic support for Ukraine Friday and another round of sanctions targeting Russia over its “illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.”

Mr. Biden told the G-7 leaders the U.S. now supported providing training to Ukrainian pilots on U.S.-made F-16 aircrafts, senior officials speaking on condition of anonymity told reporters. The initiative had been gaining support in Europe.

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It was also announced Friday that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will attend the summit’s closing day Sunday, a further stop on the Ukrainian leader’s own whirlwind diplomatic tour, which included an appeal for support Friday in Saudi Arabia to members of the Arab League.

But in Asia, Mr. Biden, beyond his short-term policy agenda, is also pursuing two key pillars of his presidency’s foreign policy: revitalizing America’s alliances and demonstrating democracy’s virtues as an effective governing system in an era of advancing authoritarianism.

Hanging over both priorities is the debt ceiling crisis Mr. Biden left behind in Washington – and how that unresolved domestic issue forced the White House to cancel the second half of what was to have been a weeklong trip showcasing the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

Canceled were post-G-7 visits to Australia and the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea – the latter proudly touted by the White House as the first visit by a sitting president to a South Pacific island nation.

Gone, a planned summit in Sydney of leaders from the Quad countries: the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan. Nixed, a gathering of Pacific Island leaders in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, and a presidential announcement of an agreement to grant the U.S. military access to the island nation’s ports and airports.

For some, the disrupted and truncated presidential tour will only reinforce concerns that a weakened America distracted by political divisions at home may not be up to leading the Indo-Pacific region as it confronts an increasingly assertive China.

Indeed, for some critics, the political brinkmanship on display in Washington over the debt limit – Republican negotiators walked away from talks with the White House on Friday – can only muffle Mr. Biden’s ringing pro-democracy rhetoric on the international stage – and delight Beijing.

Reflecting a region’s disappointment, the Sydney Morning Herald’s foreign affairs columnist Matthew Knott this week highlighted Washington’s “mess” and noted, “The Quad summit in Sydney should have provided a powerful symbol of four proud democracies working together to get things done. Instead,” he added, “it will serve to highlight the systemic problems plaguing the world’s longest-standing democracy and its aspirations for ongoing global leadership.”

Not exactly the kind of press and public-diplomacy impact the White House must have had in mind when planning the president’s Asia trip.

Moreover, the spectacle of an American president having his wings clipped by an ornery opposition and dysfunctional politics at home has been widely characterized as a “gift” to Beijing, which has been critical of Washington’s stepped-up attention to South Pacific nations and strengthening alliance with Australia.

The contrast of an ascendant China with a weakened American superpower was underscored by reports of a smiling Chinese leader Xi Jinping holding his own summit with five Central Asian countries on the eve of the G-7 gathering.

Mr. Xi’s summit burnished an image of a confident global leader racking up a series of diplomatic triumphs over recent months – without worries of an undermining political opposition at home.

Still, experts in Asian affairs and diplomatic relations say any setbacks to Mr. Biden’s foreign policy agenda as a result of his canceled visits can be short-lived if the administration continues what some say has been intense groundwork and diplomatic engagement in the region.

And, of course, if the world’s largest economy can resolve the debt ceiling crisis before it damages an already fragile global economy.

“Presence matters to all U.S. allies in the region, so yes, the cancellation of the second leg of President Biden’s Asia trip is going to cause some disappointment and raise some questions. And it will certainly embolden China and others who oppose strong U.S. leadership in Asia to double down on their portraying of the U.S as an unreliable partner,” says Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“But this can yet be a temporary blip on the radar screen,” he adds, “if the administration sticks to the very robust agenda and the extensive and multidimensional networking it has developed across the region.”

There’s no getting around the fact that the now-canceled stops in Papua New Guinea and Australia are “missed opportunities” for the U.S. to bolster relations and presence in a region it long overlooked, Mr. Szechenyi says.

But he notes that Mr. Biden plans to meet his three Quad counterparts on the sidelines of the G-7 summit (Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, plus Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who were invited to attend as non-G-7 leaders, as was South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol) while a planned trilateral meeting of the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean leaders remains on the agenda.

Others say any doubts about U.S. leadership raised by Mr. Biden’s domestic political travails should be weighed against the administration’s recent diplomatic successes on the Asia-Pacific front.

The “split screen” of the administration promoting democracy abroad while debilitated by political brawling at home is as jarring as the public curtailing of a carefully planned trip is “disturbing,” says Lyle Goldstein, director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities in Washington.

But no one should overlook recent U.S. advances in the region, he adds.

“We could say the Biden administration has had some run of successes in its Asia policy,” he says, highlighting in particular President Yoon’s recent state visit to the White House and accords with the Philippines to expand the U.S. military presence there.

A successful weeklong trip around the Pacific “was going to be the icing on the cake,” Dr. Goldstein says. Losing that may not be good, he adds.

But more worrisome to his thinking is how intense attention to Mr. Biden’s Asia summitry is obscuring the perils of an absence of high-level diplomacy with China.

“We’re putting too much effort into these symbolic meetings,” he says, “and not focusing enough on the ... situations that remain extremely dark,” first and foremost deteriorating relations with China.

On a recent extended trip to China to meet with officials, retired military officers, and academics, Dr. Goldstein says he was struck by a near-universal and deeply pessimistic perspective that the U.S., through its stepped-up military diplomacy and expanded basing in the region, must be preparing for war over Taiwan.

As for any damage to Mr. Biden’s pro-democracy project, some experts note that the democratic world, starting with the G-7 leaders, will understand that tough domestic politics come with the territory. Others emphasize that Mr. Biden can mitigate any fallout from the unresolved debt ceiling crisis by highlighting the democratic underpinnings of the G-7 and other alliances the U.S. is strengthening, like the Quad.

“Biden will be able to use his presence at the G-7 summit to rally the international community to support the rules-based international order that is essential to the region’s prosperity and security,” says Mr. Szechenyi. “Strengthening the rules and norms of that order is one of Japan’s priorities for the summit,” he adds, “so we should expect to see considerable attention” to the issue.

Some experts note that Mr. Biden will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in San Francisco in November. The spectacle of disrupted U.S. diplomacy could be a faint memory by then, they say.

But if Mr. Biden aims to keep his Asia policy on track, he will have to get an Australia and South Pacific visit back on his agenda as soon as possible, Mr. Szechenyi adds.

Apparently acutely aware of this, the White House has taken to using phrases like “until [the canceled visits] can be rescheduled” in its statements from Hiroshima.

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