File Photo of US President Joe Biden. (Photo: Reuters)
U.S. President Joe Biden met Wednesday with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the White House, telling reporters he was not worried about Canberra’s apparently warming relations with China because the United States itself is seeking a thaw in ties.
Albanese is making his first official trip to Washington since being elected in May 2022, after being invited by Biden in May of this year after the U.S. president canceled a trip to Sydney to negotiate an increase in the debt ceiling with Republicans.
But the Australian leader made a surprise announcement just before boarding his plane to the United States over the weekend: From Nov. 4-7, Albanese told reporters at the airport, he will visit Shanghai and Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
At a press conference after their meeting Wednesday, Biden said he was not worried by Albanese’s planned trip, estimating he had traveled more than 70,000 miles (about 112,000 km) in his own lifetime for meetings with Xi, starting with when they were both vice presidents.
“I have met with Xi Jinping more than any other world leader has,” he said. “I’ve had over 68 hours of private meetings, just he and I, with simultaneous interpreters, starting back when I was vice president.”
But he added some advice for the Australian prime minister in his dealings with the Chinese leader at the end of next week.
“‘Trust, but verify’ is the phrase,” Biden said, using a Russian proverb made famous by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
‘Cooperate where we can’
Administration officials had in the lead-up to Wednesday’s meeting played down the importance of Albanese’s last-minute announcement, painting his plans as the same as ongoing U.S. efforts at a thaw.
National security spokesman, John Kirby, on Tuesday, noted to reporters that Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting Washington this week ahead of an expected trip by Xi to San Francisco mid next month for a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
“We fully support and understand that the prime minister wants to meet President Xi and travel to Beijing,” he said, adding that four Biden administration officials recently made the trip. “Conversations with the Chinese and keeping lines of communication open is very important.”
Albanese, for his part, told reporters at the White House that Australia accepted that the United States and China were vying for influence, but said that did not mean Australia could only speak with U.S. leaders.
“We have strategic competition in our region. That’s a fact that we are living with,” he said, explaining that his government’s approach to Australia’s relationship with China was “to cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, but engage in our national interest.”
Albanese said it was in the interests of Australia, China and the world for the two countries “to have a relationship where there is dialogue.”
But he reiterated that Australia stood with the United States against China’s vast sovereign claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“That is Australia’s position,” he said. “We cooperate very much with the United States on those matters, and on others, and I look forward to a constructive dialogue when I visit Shanghai and Beijing.”
The two leaders also stressed that the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States was not meant to constrain China’s rise. Biden said Xi had personally asked him, when the deal was announced last year, if that was the aim of the pact.
“I said ‘No, we’re not surrounding China, we’re just making sure that the sea lanes remain open,’” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”
Albanese is himself scheduled to attend meetings on Capitol Hill on Thursday, as the Australian government tries to ensure legislative bills to enable the AUKUS pact passes Congress amid some criticism.
American lawmakers in both the House and in the Senate have openly opposed key parts of the AUKUS deal, including the sharing of sensitive U.S. defense technology and the sale of nuclear submarines to Canberra amid massive backlogs in shipbuilding yards.
Democrats, including the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, say they are worried that removing limits on the sharing of defense technology with Australian companies could create a target for Chinese espionage.
For the most part, Republicans say Australia is already trusted to handle U.S. intelligence secrets under Five Eyes. But other Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about selling nuclear submarines abroad when the U.S. Navy itself is struggling to acquire enough.
Albanese said he was not worried about the bills being held up, explaining that he trusted Biden’s assurances Congress would pass legislation he said was “also in the interest of the United States.”
“I’m very confident in the discussions that I’ve had with Democrats and Republicans that there is very broad support for the AUKUS arrangements, and that there will be support for the legislation,” he said. “I regard the United States as a very reliable partner.”
“I believe it will get done,” Biden added.
Before meeting with Biden, Albanese on Monday hosted Microsoft President Brad Smith at the Australian Embassy in Washington, with Microsoft announcing it would invest AU$5 billion (about US$3 billion) in artificial intelligence and cloud computing technology in Australia.
Albanese and Biden also announced a deal to lay submarine cables to help keep Pacific nations connected to high-speed Internet, and a deal to help connect the Pacific to international banking infrastructure.
On Wednesday night, Biden is scheduled to host Albanese for a dinner at the White House. The new wave band the B-52s had been slated to perform, but were replaced with a military band at the last minute.
Jill Biden said on Tuesday that the B-52s, famous for their hit “Love Shack,” would still attend the dinner as guests, but would not play their upbeat music given that “so many are facing sorrow and pain,” an apparent reference to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.