Anthony Albanese is in the final stages of an official visit to Washington. He wanted to engage the president of the United States, Joe Biden, on a range of policy fronts during the four-day trip. Here are the key takeaways from the visit.
Trouble with nuclear submarines
When the prime minister arrived in Washington, dysfunction in the legislature was on full display. The House of Representatives had been paralysed for three weeks because there was no speaker. This chaos affects the biggest defence project in Australia’s history. The Biden administration needs to be able to pass legislation underpinning the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine pact. Three bills sit in the queue: ship transfer legislation, export control legislation, and a supplementary budget request for submarine industrial base support. Whether they emerge from the queue remains anyone’s guess.
Also anybody’s guess: whether Biden’s commitment to Aukus will be honoured by Maga Republicans in the event they win back the White House in 2025. Given the known unknowns, Albanese needs the incumbent president and key US lawmakers to focus on assembling and future-proofing the Aukus nuts and bolts. Ensuring the right people are focused was one of the key objectives of this visit.
Biden was asked by a reporter whether he could give a personal guarantee Aukus-related legislation will pass. As it happened, the president could not. In response to the question, the president said: “Do you know anyone in an elected office [who] can give a personal guarantee that it happens?” The journalist persisted: “Well, we’d like you to try.” Biden responded: “I’m going to try. And I believe it will get done.”
Keeping US eyes on the Pacific
Just as Australia needs Biden to be focused on Aukus, both the Albanese government and the Dutton opposition want the US focused on, and engaged in, the Pacific. The reasons for this are obvious. China is becoming the regional hegemon. Australia remains dependent on the US for our security.
Albanese and Biden have unveiled a number of joint measures in the Pacific, including co‑financing infrastructure projects in Kiribati such as the rehabilitation of Kanton wharf and Charlie wharf in Tarawa. According to a joint statement from the leaders, Australia and the US will engage Pacific nations to develop and deploy a pilot initiative in the region to increase national cyber resilience. There are also joint climate change-related commitments, including a bonds program to help small firms in the Indo-Pacific work on the energy transition and an effort to ensure financing from the green climate fund is targeted to “those most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, including least developed countries and small island developing states”.
The race to net zero
Sticking with the energy transition, another key focus of the trip has been a bilateral discussion about critical minerals. Gaining reliable supply of the commodities required to power the net zero world is one of the biggest emerging geopolitical power plays. As the US commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, noted this week: “China has a headstart, and that means we have to work a little harder and a little faster. [China has] the technology and sustained investment over a long period of time, particularly in midstream processing and refining, to dominate the market for critical minerals.”
The US wants a secure supply chain of commodities to build batteries and electric vehicles. Australia also wants to develop a domestic battery industry. Raimondo again: “As we race towards a more stable supply chain, there’s a moment for us, US and Australia, to partner as it relates to critical minerals to our mutual benefit.” Albanese put it this way: “We want to move Australia up the international value chain in critical minerals, energy and manufacturing.”
As a downpayment on this objective, Australia announced an expansion of the existing critical minerals facility during this Washington visit. The expansion was worth $2bn. But industry players say much more needs to happen, and soon.
Cyber and space
Albanese opened his trip by confirming a significant new investment by the US computing giant Microsoft in Australia’s hyperscale cloud computing capacity and cyber defence. The announcement in Washington came ahead of the government’s release of a new Australian cybersecurity strategy covering the period to 2030. Release of the new Australian strategy is expected within weeks.
The two leaders are also collaborating on policies related to space. The strategic competition between the US and China extends beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. There is a renewed space race between countries and between billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Biden and Albanese will sign a new technology safeguard agreement that will allow more launches of US rockets from Australia. The two leaders also welcomed progress in negotiations of a “bilateral space framework agreement” to facilitate private investment in assets like commercial spaces stations.
Canberra, Beijing, Washington, Tokyo
With strategic competition with China the consistent backdrop to the trip, the two leaders also took steps to bring Japan closer. Albanese and Biden said they would explore trilateral cooperation with Japan on drones to “enhance interoperability and accelerate technology transfer in the rapidly emerging field of collaborative combat aircraft and autonomy”.
Biden said the whole piece – Aukus, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad grouping with India and Japan – was not an attempt by the US and its allies to surround China. It was an attempt to maintain stability. “That’s what this is all about … it’s about maintaining stability. Stability. The Taiwan Straits, the Indian Ocean, that whole area. And I think it’s going to increase the prospects for long-term peace rather than anything else.”