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US Debt Ceiling Looms Over Biden’s Foreign Trips

US President Joe Biden and Spanish President Pedro Sanchez, not pictured, hold a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2023.
US President Joe Biden and Spanish President Pedro Sanchez, not pictured, hold a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2023.

The monthslong impasse between the White House and congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations could derail Joe Biden’s upcoming meeting with allies in Japan and Australia.

The U.S. president is scheduled to depart Washington for Hiroshima on May 17 to attend a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders. On May 22 he is to continue to Sydney for the Quad Summit with a brief stop in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, to meet with Pacific Island Forum leaders. The meetings have been billed as opportunities to deepen cooperation on regional challenges and advance U.S. strategic interests in countering China’s influence.

Biden “is expecting to go,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during her briefing Friday. Earlier this week, Biden said he is committed to going but that resolving the debt ceiling deadlock is the “single most important thing” on his agenda. Depending on the state of those negotiations, he said it’s possible he would attend “virtually or not go.”

It would not be the first time an American president has skipped a summit over budget disputes at home. Barack Obama canceled a trip to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia and the East Asia summit in Brunei in 2013 because of a government shutdown over a budget disagreement, and Bill Clinton pulled out of the APEC Japan meeting in 1995, also during a debt ceiling dispute.

G-7 Hiroshima

Hiroshima, Japan, is the venue for this year’s May 19-21 summit of the G-7, a grouping of the world’s leading industrial nations, including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and the European Union.

Leaders will try to find alignment in countering Beijing’s use of trade and investment restrictions, boycotts and sanctions for what they see as “economic coercion.” They will do so through export controls and restrictions on investment from their own nations to China, while seeking to slow China's technological advance and reduce its dominance of the global supply chain.

More than a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, the meeting will also focus on supporting Kyiv’s defense and ratcheting up economic pressure on Russia through broader export bans. G-7 members, mainly those in Europe, still export around $4.7 billion a month to Russia, about 43% of what they did before the invasion, mostly pharmaceuticals, machinery, food and chemicals.

As part of his outreach to the Global South, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, this year’s G-7 host, has invited Australia, Brazil, Comoros, Cook Islands, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Ukraine and Vietnam.

US Debt Ceiling Looms Over Biden’s Foreign Trips
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“A little bit like the G-7 trying to create a mini-G-20 without China and Russia,” said Josh Lipsky, senior director of the Atlantic Council's GeoEconomics Center, in a briefing to reporters Friday.

Looming over the meeting is the concern that financial instability from the threat of a U.S. default and the recent collapse of three American banks will spill over into the rest of the world. That would particularly hurt countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia that are struggling with post-pandemic debt accumulated through infrastructure and other loans mainly from China.

There have been calls to reduce those debts to more manageable levels, said Shihoko Goto, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. However, she told VOA, “Without having China there, there isn't really going to be much momentum.”

Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are also at the top of this year's agenda, with Kishida’s symbolic choice of hosting the summit in his hometown of Hiroshima, a city destroyed by an atomic weapon in 1945.

Notably lacking in this G-7 is the push to provide funding for global infrastructure projects as an alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative, which was a focus in the last two G-7 summits.

Pacific Island Forum

From Hiroshima, Biden is scheduled to head to Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, on May 22 to meet with Prime Minister James Marape and other leaders of the Pacific Island Forum, a grouping of 18 countries and territories spanning more than 30 million square kilometers of ocean. There he will seek to establish stronger strategic ties and deter those nations from making security deals with China amid rising tensions over Taiwan.

PNG officials say defense and surveillance agreements between PNG and the U.S. have been finalized and are set to be signed by Biden, including deals to help PNG mitigate climate change and strengthen deterrence capacity against illegal fishing.

Biden will be the highest U.S. official to visit in recent years, following Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Forum in Port Moresby. Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited the region three times, setting up infrastructure projects and signing a 2022 security pact with the Solomon Islands.

“The U.S. needs to make up ground in the region,” said Charles Edel, the inaugural Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies during a briefing earlier this week. “Years of strategic neglect from Washington produced a strategic vacuum that China was eager to step into.”

Last year the administration hosted the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit in Washington. It has established representation in the Pacific Islands Forum and is opening new embassies in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tonga.

Observers also will be watching for any progress on the U.S. offer to revamp PNG’s Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island that Pence announced during his 2018 visit.

Quad Summit

After the brief stop in Port Moresby, Biden is scheduled to continue to a summit of the Quad countries — the U.S., Japan, India and Australia — May 24 in Sydney, hosted by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

The Quad was formed in 2007 to bolster economic and security relations among the four democracies and eventually evolved to become a strategic alignment against China’s rise.

This will be the fourth meeting of the group, and the second to be held in person following last year’s Tokyo summit. It’s structured around six leader-level working groups, on global health security, climate, critical and emerging technologies, cyber, space, and infrastructure.

Last year the Quad launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, aiming to improve partners’ ability to protect their waters and resources and deter illicit Chinese maritime activities.

Australian media is reporting that Albanese has invited Biden to speak in front of the parliament in Canberra. The White House has not said whether Biden will accept.