Sydney Quad Summit called off over US crisis

By, , New Delhi /washington
May 18, 2023 01:14 AM IST

People familiar with the matter said that though the Quad Leaders Summit had been rescheduled, the PM's engagements in Australia would remain unchanged.

The Quad Leaders Summit scheduled for May 24 in Sydney has been cancelled following US President Joe Biden’s decision not to go ahead with a planned visit to Australia because of stalled domestic debt ceiling negotiations.

US president Joe Biden (C) speaks during a meeting on the debt limit with (L-R) US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, US Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. (AFP)
US president Joe Biden (C) speaks during a meeting on the debt limit with (L-R) US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, US Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. (AFP)

The White House announced late on Tuesday that Biden will return to the US after the Group of Seven (G7) Summit in Japan on May 20, instead of travelling to Papua New Guinea and Australia as earlier planned. Biden spoke to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to inform him of the decision.

Albanese confirmed to the media on Wednesday morning that the Quad Leaders Summit in Sydney was called off, and suggested that the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which groups India, Australia, Japan and the US, could meet on the margins of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

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Albanese, however, said a planned bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi might still go ahead.

People familiar with the matter said that though the Quad Leaders Summit had been rescheduled, the Prime Minister’s engagements in Australia, other than the summit, would remain unchanged. Modi will embark on a visit to Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia on May 19 to participate in outreach sessions of the G7 Summit on May 20, the Summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation on May 22, and for the bilateral with Albanese.

Biden was set to be in Papua New Guinea at the same time as Modi, and reports had suggested both leaders would make a concerted bid to woo leaders of Pacific Island states, who are being aggressively courted by China.

But with a looming domestic political and economic crisis at home and negotiations with the US Congress over the debt ceiling hitting a roadblock, Biden decided that he needed to be back in US earlier than planned.

A US administration official stressed to HT that the cancellation was purely to do with domestic American developments and the President was “absolutely committed” to the Quad, a free and open Indo-Pacific and the relationship with India.

The official pointed out that the India and the US have busy diplomatic calendar ahead. “The two leaders will meet in Hiroshima. On June 22, the president will host Modi for a state visit in Washington DC. And in September, the President will visit New Delhi for the G20 summit. This will be a golden year for India-US relations and you will see tangible deliverables,” the official said, adding that as fellow democracies, India, Japan and Australia will understand Biden’s democratic compulsions at home

Earlier, speaking at an event in the White House on Tuesday evening, Biden first gave a preview of his visit to Japan and then said: “The nature of the presidency is addressing many issues, all at once. So I am confident we are going to make progress in avoiding default and fulfilling America’s responsibilities on the world stage. However, I am cutting my trip short. I am postponing the Australia portion of my trip and my stop in Papua New Guinea in order to be back for the final negotiations with the Congressional leaders.”

The US is locked in a political impasse between the Democratic administration and a Republican House over debt ceiling — unless the US Congress raises the ceiling, the US risks defaulting on its obligations for the first time in history after June 1.

A few hours before that, the White House, in a statement, had already announced that Biden would return to the US on Sunday after the G7 summit “to ensure that Congress takes action by the deadline to avert default.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Biden spoke to Albanese to inform him that he would be postponing his visit. “He also invited the Prime Minister for an official state visit at a time to be agreed by the teams. The President’s team engaged with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea’s team to inform them as well.”

Speaking to ABC Radio Sydney, Albanese confirmed that Biden had spoken to him, they had agreed to reschedule his visit for the future, and Biden had expressed his disappointment with some members of the US Congress.

Albanese said that his government will speak to Japan and India to discuss the travel schedule of their leaders and added that Biden would “try to convene a [Quad] meeting given all four leaders are in Japan” for the G7. At the same time, Albanese said that the Quad dialogue in Sydney may still take place with a senior US representative. There was some speculation in Washington DC that Secretary of State Antony J Blinken could fill in for Biden.

Albanese, however, expressed confidence that Biden’s visit won’t change PM Modi’s schedule. “Prime Minister Modi has a bilateral programme that’s organised. So I am certain that he will be here.” The PM referred to the large Indian diaspora in Australia and mentioned that a large event was to be held next Tuesday, May 23. Modi is expected to address the diaspora gathering.

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The US debt ceiling crisis refers to a unique feature of the American political economy. While the US Congress authorises spending, it also authorises a certain borrowing limit that the executive cannot exceed to meet its expenditure. The US had hit its debt ceiling of $31.4 trillion on January 19, and since then, the Treasury department has resorted to extraordinary measures. On June 1, unless the Congress raises the debt limit or suspends it, the US is at the risk of defaulting on its credit, a move that will jolt the markets and create an unprecedented economic crisis both at home and abroad.

While Biden has officially maintained that it is the US Congress’s duty to raise the debt ceiling and he would not negotiate on the issue, McCarthy has pushed forward a Republican proposal that would entail dramatic spending cuts including in social welfare programmes and Biden’s signature legislations passed over the past two years.

With Biden’s foreign policy engagements becoming a clear casualty of polarised American politics, the administration sought to send a message of reassurance to allay apprehensions that the visit’s postponement can potentially generate among allies and partners.

Jean Pierre said that revitalising and reinvigorating America’s alliances and advancing partnerships such the Quad remained a key priority for the President. “This is vital to our ability to advance our foreign policy goals and better promote global stability and prosperity. We look forward to finding other ways to engage with Australia, the Quad, Papua New Guinea and the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in the coming year,” he said.

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    Rezaul H Laskar is the Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times. His interests include movies and music.


    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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