The Bidens gave Albanese vital assurance and a polite prod. Oh, and tennis shoes.
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Henry Kissinger once scoffed at any Australian pretences to relevance in Washington DC by saying: “When I’m shaving in the morning, I’m not thinking about Australian foreign policy.”
That was the 1990s. Times have changed. The White House chief of Indo-Pacific policy, Kurt Campbell, tells me that “this week people were thinking about Australia when they were shaving, brushing their teeth, combing their hair and putting their ties on”.
Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Credit: AP
It was the week Anthony Albanese was in Washington for an elaborate three-day state visit, so Australia was getting more attention than usual. But the remarkable fact is that the visit went ahead at all.
As Campbell says: “There’s an enormous amount of challenge confronting the US at the moment, domestically, internationally, with the war in Ukraine and challenges in the Middle East. In many respects it’s been punishing for the president.”
Washington also was hosting the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister in five years as the two greatest powers grope towards a less antagonistic relationship, even as each accused the other of dangerous military brinkmanship in the air and on the oceans last week.
US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell.Credit: Andrew Taylor
“Nevertheless,” says Campbell, “the president and his team devoted substantial amounts of time and attention to the visit by Prime Minister Albanese.”
In an earlier time of multiple crises, the Australian leader’s visit probably would have been postponed. The Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove observes that “it was telling that even with twin world crises, there was never a suggestion that the visit would be postponed”.
And it was not a token visit. It was only the fourth state dinner that Biden has hosted in his presidency and, adds Fullilove, who was present, “it was a powerhouse turnout”.
Was this new priority for Australia a personal tribute to Albanese? No. Although the leaders apparently enjoy each other’s company: “You know how you have to sometimes pretend that two leaders get on?” confesses Campbell, who’s served at senior levels in the State Department and the Pentagon. “These guys really get on. You can see it. They’re very similar – both from poor backgrounds, both underestimated, it was remarkable.”
And their partners seemed to have got along, too. “Dr Biden and Ms Haydon hit it off immediately. And at the end of the evening of the first night, as they were finishing the meal, Dr Biden asked Ms Haydon, ‘How are you getting back to Blair House?’” – the official guesthouse some hundreds of metres from the White House.
“And she said, ‘I’m just going to walk, it’s such a lovely evening’. And Dr Biden, observing Jodie Haydon’s high heels, replied: “‘Well, you’re not going to walk in those shoes’.” The first lady disappeared upstairs and returned with a gift of tennis shoes. “‘Take these, they’re much more comfortable for walking up stairs.’ It was just a warm personal aside that made a big impact,” according to Campbell.
Jodie Haydon and Dr Biden became sole-mates. Credit: SMH
The human element is bonus, not business. The real reason for the greater Australian priority is China. Biden has said that America is “competing with China to win the 21st century”. And “the administration sees Australia as a significant element in its response,” Fullilove explains.
US allies in the Asia Pacific for generations have fretted about America’s propensity for distraction, to lose interest in the region when there’s a crisis elsewhere, unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. Kurt Campbell addresses this bluntly:
“In the past, there has always been the worry that the US would lose focus on the Indo-Pacific while we’re occupied over very pressing issues. I would simply say that over the last few days the president and the national security team deeply engaged with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi but, more importantly, strong, determined and effective engagement with Prime Minister Albanese.
“I will say from this visit it is clear to me that the relationship has ascended to a new level.”
The way Fullilove puts it, the Biden administration last week showed itself to be “strategically ambidextrous” as it began coaxing the new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson into passing new spending for Ukraine, Israel and American submarine-making capacity, while negotiating the Israel crisis, hosting Albanese and engaging Wang Yi in intensive discussions which now appear to have set the terms for Biden to meet Xi Jinping next month at an APEC summit in San Francisco. “It was a full court press.”
What of the substance of the Australia-US alliance at the end of the Albanese visit? The US gave Albanese vital assurances, says Campbell, but the Indo-Pacific co-ordinator also gave Canberra a polite prod:
“The Australians received substantial reassurances about AUKUS on three levels,” says Campbell. “Very clear statements about bipartisan support for both the transfer of the submarines, the investment in subs infrastructure here in the US and also determination to move forward on technology release issues.”
And the prod? He exhorted Australia to stay focused on implementation of AUKUS: “It will require sustained efforts and the test will be over time. We’ve seen some positive signs but those have to be followed up on and have to be taken seriously at every level. We know that Australia, like every other country, is facing budgetary pressures, but nevertheless these are essential investments and we are grateful for steps Australia has already taken and we expect that there will be more.”
After the festival of Albanese, top US officials including Biden and Campbell met Wang and heard his “concerns about what the Chinese describe as American encirclement and using allies in ways that undermine Chinese security”.
But according to Campbell, Biden told Wang “that we see these engagements as protecting and securing the operating system of the Indo-Pacific. We have made clear that, with respect to Indo-Pacific strategy, securing and strengthening allies and partners is at the top of our list. And so I think it gave us enormous confidence and a boost going into these meetings with Wang Yi after what I think was an extraordinarily effective and well-choreographed visit of Prime Minister Albanese.”
In sum, the allies gave Wang something to think about while he’s shaving in the morning.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
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