President Joe Biden’s cancelled visit to Australia has sent government officials scurrying to prepare for a possible Quad meeting in Japan this weekend to replace the one scheduled for Sydney next week.
The US President called Prime Minister Anthony Albanese early Wednesday morning to inform him that the US debt ceiling crisis meant the visit Down Under would have to be postponed.
Mr Biden was scheduled to visit Australia next week for the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Sydney on 24 May and was expected to address the Federal Parliament in Canberra on 23 May.
The President was also scheduled to stop in on Papua New Guinea, which would have been the first time a sitting US president had visited PNG. But Mr Biden will now instead fly straight to Washington after the G7 summit in Hiroshima at the end of this week.
Plans are now underway to try for a rescheduled Quad meeting with the leaders of Australia, the US, Japan and India on the sidelines of the G7. It is a big ask, however, with a busy summit agenda and a number of planned bilateral meetings taking priority over the three days of the G7.
Getting all four leaders alone together before the US President flies out will be a difficult task, but government officials are confident that time will be made for Mr Biden and Mr Albanese to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a truncated Quad meeting. It is likely to be a short discussion, though.
“The President apologised that he would now have to postpone this visit because of the unfolding difficulties he is facing in his negotiations with the US Congress over the US government debt ceiling,” Mr Albanese said on Wednesday.
“These negotiations are scheduled to enter their critical and concluding phase during the last week of May. Regrettably, this conflicts with the President’s visits to Sydney and Canberra – including the Quad summit scheduled for 24 May.”
For a short while on Wednesday, there was a possibility the Quad summit in Sydney would still go ahead as planned, with a senior US representative standing in for Mr Biden.
But with doubts over Mr Kishida’s and Mr Modi’s attendance without Mr Biden there – particularly if a gathering of the Quad can be arranged for Hiroshima – the Australian gathering has been cancelled.
“The Quad leaders meeting will not be going ahead in Sydney next week,” Mr Albanese said. “We, though, will be having that discussion between Quad leaders in Japan.”
It is also not likely that Vice President Kamala Harris will take Mr Biden’s place with an Australian visit, as had also been mooted.
Republicans in the US Congress are fighting the White House over plans to raise the US Government’s $US31.4 trillion ($A46.9 trillion) debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on loans.
Without a deal being reached, the US could run out of money to pay its debts within weeks, which could lead to a domestic recession and a possible global financial crisis.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the President’s decision to cancel his Australian visit was understandable, albeit disappointing. “This was going to be an opportunity on a bipartisan basis to welcome him to our country,” Mr Dutton said. “The AUKUS arrangement is historic.”
Mr Biden would have been the sixth sitting US president to visit Australia and the fifth to address the Australian Parliament. His visit to Australia would have been the first by a sitting US president in almost a decade.
Barack Obama cancelled his presidential visits to Australia twice due to domestic issues, before arriving in Canberra in 2011 to address a joint sitting of Parliament and returning to Brisbane in 2014 for the G7 summit.
Mr Albanese is expected to make a state visit to the US later this year.