SYDNEY — President Biden was set to make history next week: With his trip to Papua New Guinea, he would become the first sitting American president to visit a Pacific island nation. Even though he was scheduled to spend only three hours on the ground, he was due to attend a meeting of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum, and sign security pacts with the host and with Micronesia.
The visit was to be a clear signal that after decades of neglect, the United States was focused once more on a region where China has spent a significant amount of time and money.
Indeed, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spent several days in Papua New Guinea in 2018 when he went on a state visit and attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit there.
Instead, Biden’s decision to return home after the Group of Seven meetings in Japan — canceling the Papua New Guinea and Australian legs of his trip — to deal with the U.S. debt crisis sent a starkly different signal: That American dysfunction at home continues to disrupt its agenda abroad.
Rather than make history, the trip reinforced it.
“This cancellation will be seen as the U.S. falling into familiar patterns, and not living up to the expectations it sets,” said Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat in the Pacific who is now a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank. “And it will make fruitful material for detractors seeking to undermine U.S. influence in the region.”
The June 1 deadline for resolving the debt crisis standoff was expected to hang over the Pacific tour. But U.S. officials were confident that it would go ahead and send a strong message about American commitment to the region.
Despite the debt limit uncertainties and the challenges of Ukraine, American focus and strategy would not “drift,” one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters, said on Monday evening.
But the focus, at least, has drifted.
Biden’s decision will now raise questions about that commitment at a time of increasing competition between the United States and China for global influence, especially in the Pacific.
“These visits are really important to Pacific island countries,” said Iati Iati, a Pacific expert at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “It’s not just the government, the whole country gets up for them, and if you saw the fanfare associated with Xi Jinping’s visit, Biden was probably in for a similar reception. So this will be a big letdown for Papua New Guinea.”
In Port Moresby, where Monday was set to be a holiday, the mood quickly turned from excitement to frustration.
“I came into the office this morning and many of my colleagues were sad,” said Bernard Yegiora, a lecturer in international relations at Divine Word University in the capital. The visit was a chance for the developing nation of around 10 million people to recast its global image amid persistent corruption and after widespread violence during last year’s elections, when videos of machete-wielding mobs made international news.
“The president’s visit would have helped people see Papua New Guinea in a different perspective, not as this country that is overrun by criminal gangs or street gangs, but as a vibrant country that is growing in the region and is able to diplomatically relate with the major powers that are … influencing political and economic outcomes,” Yegiora said.
Preparations had been underway in Port Moresby for six months, and officials were set to hold a “dry run” on Wednesday for the visit of Biden and other foreign dignitaries.
(Leaders from more than a dozen other Pacific island countries are still expected to come to Papua New Guinea, where they will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before he goes to Australia. It was not immediately clear if the United States would send someone to meet with the Pacific leaders in Biden’s place.)
Biden’s cancellation will be a political blow for Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, who has touted an increase in American investment in local infrastructure on top of a $32 million boost in U.S. development aid, Yegiora said.
Biden was expected to sign a security agreement with Marape that will allow greater American access to the Pacific island nation’s ports and airports, as well as a “shiprider” agreement that would enable the U.S. Coast Guard to patrol Papua New Guinea’s vast maritime territory.
The agreement would allow the United States to “inject some confidence into their own strategic access to the region,” Sora said.
Beijing’s announcement last year that it had struck a security agreement with the Solomon Islands — just east of Papua New Guinea — sparked fears that China could build a military base 1,000 miles from the shores of Australia, America’s closest ally in the region.
China and the Solomon Islands have denied any intention to build a base, but American and Australian officials remain wary of what they believe is Beijing’s intention to extend its already growing global military footprint to strategically important parts of the South Pacific.
The new agreements between the United States and Papua New Guinea will almost certainly go ahead despite Biden backing out of the visit, Iati said.
“It is hugely important for the United States’ ambitions in the region to contain China,” he said of the security agreement. “So much work has gone into it I doubt that it will be off the table. But what it will do is give some space for those opposed to the security pact to have their voices heard.”
Biden’s decision not to come could also sow doubt among other Pacific island leaders, whom the United States has been courting with increased diplomatic visits, new embassies and a White House summit last September, where Biden announced more than $800 million in new aid.
“They will probably be thinking, how does this compare to Xi Jinping’s visit,” Iati said. “He made a promise and he kept it. For Joe Biden, it probably would have been better to have not made a promise than to have made one and then broken it.”
Biden’s trip to Australia would have been the first by a sitting American president in almost a decade. He was set to speak to Parliament about the U.S.-Australia relationship, including the AUKUS security pact that will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, before the Quad Leaders’ Summit on May 24.
The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said he spoke to Biden before dawn Wednesday and they would work to reschedule the president’s visit to Australia “at the earliest opportunity.” Biden also invited Albanese to Washington for a state visit. A few hours later, Albanese announced that the Quad summit would be canceled.
U.S. relations with Pacific island nations will not be as easy to mend, said Kate Clayton, a researcher at La Trobe Asia.
“There is concern that this could impact the U.S. Pacific policy, just as the U.S. is gaining momentum in the region,” she said. “In the same way Biden was quick to invite Albanese to the United States, he needs to do the same for Pacific leaders.”
While previous American leaders had also aborted Asia trips — Barack Obama cut short a tour in 2013 because of a U.S. government shutdown, and Donald Trump skipped a number of summits with little explanation — U.S.-China competition in the Pacific is at another level now. That means this cancellation hits differently.
“They’ll manage to repair the short-term damage,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it certainly adds weight to arguments that our domestic turmoil makes us an unreliable partner on the global stage.”
Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report