U.S President Joe Biden has warned Anthony Albanese against fully trusting China, ahead of the prime minister’s meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week, and urged Congress to pass AUKUS-related legislation this year.
Speaking alongside Albanese at a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Biden pledged to stick by Australia because both countries were Pacific nations.
And while declaring he did not want conflict, Biden also threatened a military response if China attacked Filipino vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea, amid a worrying surge of run-ins, including two collisions last Sunday.
Biden welcomed Albanese to the White House on Wednesday, rolling out the red carpet treatment with a military band, 21-gun salute and state dinner.
During his official visit to Washington, which wraps up on Friday, Albanese has had significant engagement with Biden, members of his cabinet and leading congressional figures.
“We stand as close as we’ve ever been,” Albanese said during his toast at the state dinner held in his honour.
Albanese travels next Saturday to China to meet Xi and Premier Li Qiang in a three-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai, the first bilateral visit by a prime minister since 2016. It follows China dropping most of its trade sanctions against Australian exports and freeing journalist Cheng Lei.
Asked at their joint press conference about China’s re-engagement with Australia ahead of Albanese’s trip to Beijing, and whether China can be trusted, Biden invoked former president Ronald Reagan’s attitude towards the Soviet Union.
“Trust but verify, is the phrase,” Biden said.
“China is having their own internal and external difficulties right now. China’s economic growth is stagnant compared to what it was. China has engaged in activities, that Russia and many others have engaged in, in terms of intimidation and dealing with other countries.
“The Belt and Road Initiative has ended as a debt … [a] noose for most of the people signed on.”
Biden said an earlier description of his that the US was in “extreme competition” with China did not mean conflict, adding he hoped the US would be seen as the reliable partner.
“We’re going to compete with China on every way according to international rules, economically, politically and other ways, but no, I’m not looking for conflict,” he said.
But he issued a blunt warning over Chinese harassment of Philippines vessels. This could have implications for Australia, which in recent months has sought to strengthen ties with Manila.
“Just this past week, the [People’s Republic of China] vessels acted dangerously and unlawfully as our Philippine friends conducted a routine resupply mission within their own exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea,” Mr Biden said.
“I want to be very clear: the United States’ defence commitment to the Philippines is ironclad. The United States’ defence agreement to the Philippines is ironclad.”
In off-the-cuff remarks at their Oval Office meeting, Biden revealed he told Chinese President Xi Jinping America would continue to engage with Australia because the U.S was a “Pacific nation”.
The president gave some insight into the depth of Chinese anxieties over the strength of the alliance between Canberra and Washington. “I was asked by Xi Jinping a couple of years ago why I was working so hard with your country,” Mr Biden told Mr Albanese.
“And I said, ‘Because we’re a Pacific nation’. He looked at me, and I said, ‘Yeah, we’re a Pacific nation – the United States.’ We are, and we’re going to stay that way.”
On AUKUS, Biden said it was important Congress moved quickly on legislation as he offered a further insight into Chinese concerns over Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S and UK.
“When we put together the deal, I was asked by Xi Jinping, were we just trying to surround China. I said, ‘No, we’re not surrounding China’,” Mr Biden said,
“We’re just making sure that the sea lanes remain open, he [isn’t] unilaterally able to change … the rules of the road in terms of what constitutes international airspace and water space, etc.”
Albanese said he looked forward to a “constructive dialogue” when he met Xi, adding that dialogue helped defuse tensions.
“We want a peaceful and secure region,” Albanese said. “But we want one as well that’s based upon the rule of law and where national sovereignty, including issues such as the South China Sea and the right of passage in that important waterway – the East China Sea, the Taiwan Straits – is respected.”
The two leaders released a fact sheet on new security and economic measures the countries would co-operate on.
They included a new space agreement that would allow US commercial satellite launches in Australia; a revamped technology safeguards agreement; and an agreement that cyberattacks against Australia and the US could “constitute an armed attack” under the ANZUS treaty.
The leaders also announced they would collaborate with Japan on developing unmanned aerial systems, including combat aircraft, and that Australia and the US will fund connections to undersea communications cables for Pacific nations.
Other announcements are a US$6.2 million (AUD$9.8 million) boost for new artificial intelligence co-operation, and an agreement to collaborate on clean energy supply chains, beginning with a battery supply chain working group that will explore a “deepening of both countries’ manufacturing capability and work on battery technology research and development”.
There is also an agreement to expand research and development collaboration on critical minerals and lifting production and processing capabilities to support energy, manufacturing, and defence supply chains. An expansion of access to finance for Pacific Islands for governments and the private sector has also been raised.
Albanese will spend his final day making the rounds of Capitol Hill to lobby legislators over AUKUS before giving a speech at the State Department.
He may end up bumping into Gabriel Shipton, who is also making the rounds of Congress lobbying for the release of his brother Julian Assange.
Shipton said a bipartisan letter addressed to Biden was circulating among Congress, collecting lawmakers’ signature advocating Assange’s release.
Shipton, who was protesting outside Blair House where Albanese has been staying, said a recent cross-party delegation of Australian MPs that visited Washington had made an impact.
“It opened a lot of doors and people have been listening. The effective relationship between Australia and the U.S really cuts through for congress people and senators,” Shipton said.
A crowd the White House estimated at almost 4000 greeted Albanese and partner Jodie Haydon on the South Lawn.
In his speech at the welcoming ceremony, Albanese provoked a strong reaction from Mr Biden with a couple of personal references. He quoted Biden’s late son, Beau, who said, “You know when there’s an Australian with you, they’ll always have your back” about his time serving in Iraq. Albanese also referred to an Irish poem that Mr Biden repeatedly cites, saying: “Let us pledge to make this a time when ‘hope and history rhyme’.”
Biden responded that Albanese was very kind.