WASHINGTON: U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “doubling down” on the alliance with Australia as he welcomed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to the Oval Office on Wednesday, part of a state visit intended to bolster American ties in the Pacific against the backdrop of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Biden said the leaders would discuss supporting Ukraine, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues after almost two years, and how to “stand with Israel in the wake of Hamas’ appalling terrorist attack.”
The state visit, only the fourth since Biden took office, is a reminder of how he’s pursuing long-term plans to counter China’s influence even as bloody conflicts in the Middle East and Europe remain the most immediate concerns.
Albanese arrived at the White House on Wednesday morning as a military band played and 4,000 guests watched from the South Lawn.
Biden said their alliance is characterized by “imagination, ingenuity and innovation,” and they will “race undaunted to a future we know is possible if we work together.”
Albanese said the “soul of our partnership” is “not a pact against a common enemy,” but “a pledge to a common cause.”
The two leaders are scheduled to hold a press conference in the Rose Garden after their meeting.
Senior administration officials said Biden and Albanese would be focused on supporting economic development among Pacific island nations, a key arena as the U.S. seeks the upper hand in the region.
The U.S. and Australia plan to work together on building maritime infrastructure and laying undersea cables to strengthen internet connectivity, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss details before they’re announced.
There are also plans to have U.S. companies launch space missions from Australia, and Microsoft announced it would spend $3 billion on cybersecurity, cloud computing and artificial intelligence there.
The initiatives come on top of a previously announced defense arrangement in which the U.S. is developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. The collaboration, which also involves the United Kingdom, is known as AUKUS, an acronym for the three countries’ names.
“State visits are a big deal,” said Charles Edel, a senior adviser and Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance, but they also serve as an opportunity to take stock of critical relationships and push them further forward.”
Wednesday’s events end with a state dinner in a pavilion erected on the South Lawn of the White House. On the menu will be farro and roasted beet salad, butternut squash soup and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs.
The B-52s, a rock group, were originally scheduled to perform, but they’ve been replaced by military bands.
“We are now in a time when so many are facing sorrow and pain, so we made a few adjustments to the entertainment portion of the evening,” first lady Jill Biden said.
The scenes of celebration will be juxtaposed with the crisis in the Middle East, where Israel has increased its bombardment of the Gaza Strip in retaliation against Hamas for its Oct. 7 attack. Hundreds of Palestinians were reported killed in a single day, and more bloodshed is expected as Israel prepares a ground invasion of the densely populated territory.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said there’s “no more important time than now” to hold the state visit to demonstrate the strength of the U.S. relationship with Australia.
The outbreak of war “doesn’t stop the work that the president has continued to do, whether it’s these diplomatic conversations, these important bilateral visits, or whether it’s domestic issues right here in this country,” she said.
Biden has previously hosted the leaders of France, South Korea and India for state visits.
This one is something of a consolation prize for Albanese after Biden scrapped his earlier plan to visit Australia in May during a standoff with House Republicans over the debt ceiling. The decision forced the cancellation of a meeting of the Quad, which includes the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. A quick stopover in Papa New Guinea was postponed as well.
Albanese touched down in the U.S. late Sunday, and he visited Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to commemorate how Americans and Australians have fought alongside each other over the years.
The Bidens welcomed Albanese and his partner, Jodie Haydon, to the White House on Tuesday evening for a private dinner and to exchange gifts.
Albanese is also tending to Australia’s relationship with China. He announced Sunday that he would meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. He will be the first Australian prime minister to visit China in seven years, a reflection of tension between the two countries over trade and security issues.
“It’s in Australia’s interest to have good relations with China,” Albanese told reporters.
Albanese’s meeting with Xi would come just weeks before a potential meeting between Biden and Xi during a gathering of Asian leaders in San Francisco. Beijing has not yet announced whether Xi will attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, known as APEC.
China’s top diplomat arrives in Washington later this week to meet with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Congressional chaos is another complicating factor for Albanese’s visit. House Republicans have been unable to settle on a new speaker — a fourth potential replacement emerged on Tuesday, which means it’s been impossible to move legislation on Capitol Hill.
When Albanese wants to lobby for legislation, “it’s even difficult for him to meet the right person to make the case,” said John Lee, a Sydney-based senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
For Australia, that means critical issues could be left in limbo. Officials in both countries are hoping to streamline rules on weapons exports to improve defense collaboration.
Biden wants $3.4 billion to expand naval production facilities to help provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. Sullivan described the proposal as “a key component to making our AUKUS agreement a success.”
Australia plans to buy up to five U.S. submarines and later build its own. It’s the first time in 65 years that the U.S. has shared its nuclear propulsion technology.
But Lee, who worked as a national security adviser to Australia’s foreign minister in a previous government, said the two countries are straining to make progress on their plans.
“The U.S. and Australia are not on track,” he said of their defense partnership.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.
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