Washington: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has backed the “moral clarity” of United States President Joe Biden in his response to the conflict in the Middle East, in an address at the White House that amplifies Australian support at a time of American concern about the rise of China.
Albanese cited words spoken by Biden’s late soldier son to highlight the strength of the alliance between the two countries, two weeks before he visits Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
With the Biden administration calling China a “strategic competitor” that cannot match the power of American alliances around the world, the prime minister used his ceremonial welcome to the White House to pledge common cause with the US.
The prime minister prepared the remarks to begin a day of formal meetings with Biden and US cabinet secretaries before a state dinner with political and business leaders that could build support for the AUKUS pact on nuclear-powered submarines.
While cheerful 1980s new wave group the B52s will no longer be performing at the state dinner due to concern this could seem tone-deaf when innocent lives were being lost in Israel and Gaza, the function is expected to include celebrity guests to highlight Australian ties with the US.
Referring directly to the war in Ukraine as well as the Hamas terror attack on Israel and Palestinian casualties in Gaza, the prime minister described the alliance as a defence of freedom and peace.
“That is the heart of our alliance. The soul of our partnership,” he told guests at the ceremonial welcome on the south lawn of the White House.
“Not a pact against a common enemy, a pledge to a common cause.
“That is why Ukrainian soldiers are driving Australian-made Bushmasters as they drive back an illegal and immoral invasion.
“And it is why all Australians condemn the atrocities, terror and pitiless brutality of Hamas. And, Mr President, we applaud the personal resolve you have brought to this troubled part of the world. You have spoken with moral clarity and you have stood up for a simple principle. The principle that every innocent life matters, Israeli and Palestinian. And that in any conflict, every effort must be made to protect civilians.”
Quoting an American talking about his time in the Iraq war, Albanese cited soldier saying: “You know when there’s an Australian with you, they’ll always have your back.” He will then tell the crowd at the White House that the remark came from Major Beau Biden.
The president’s son died of cancer in 2015, at the age of 46. Biden told the story of his son’s remark when he visited Australia as vice-president in 2016.
White House officials emphasised the importance of the personal ties between Biden and Albanese when the US focus on the Indo-Pacific region was “right at the top of the list” of American priorities.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Australian visit this week was a sign of the importance of alliances in the Indo-Pacific, adding strategic competitors such as Russia and China could not match the US in building partnerships.
“They’re not even close to the alliances and partnerships that we have,” Kirby said in a briefing with reporters at the Australian embassy in Washington DC.
The White House meetings come at a time of tension between the US and China, with US authorities releasing video footage of Chinese fighters “buzzing” US surveillance aircraft in the South China Sea, but also as tensions ease between Australia and China after several years of trade sanctions and diplomatic friction.
Albanese will visit China from November 4 to 7 to meet Xi in Beijing and attend a business expo in Shanghai, as well as marking 50 years since the Australian government under Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam recognised the People’s Republic of China after decades of formal recognition for Taiwan.
In the US, however, the White House describes China as a “strategic competitor” and turns to allies including Australia to help maintain regional security.
“It’s a competition that we mean to succeed in,” said Kirby.
“And that means being able to cooperate where we can, communicate where we must, and obviously, as appropriate, work to counter some of the PRC’s intimidation, coercion, excessive maritime claims.
“I mean, so we’re taking a holistic view of this relationship. We believe that again, more open lines of communication with China is a good thing.”
With chaos in Congress casting a shadow over the Prime Minister’s trip, diplomats and politicians in Washington have spent the past few weeks scrambling to mitigate the impact while the Republicans in the House of Representatives have struggled to choose a new Speaker.
Democrat Congressman Joe Courtney spoke to US Ambassador Kevin Rudd on Saturday, and even then, “everyone was still trying to think if there was a way to rescue the joint address” that Albanese was hoping to give to Congress.
One idea was to see if the Senate could accommodate such a speech, but with only 100 seats in the chamber, compared to 435 in the House of Representatives, it wasn’t possible under parliamentary rules.
Instead, Albanese will meet with members of the Senate and House who oversee defence and intelligence policy in Congress, as well as members of the Friends of Australia caucus, which is co-chaired by Courtney.
Others will then have a chance to meet the prime minister on Capitol Hill, although it is still not clear how many people may be available given the ongoing battle to find a speaker for the House of Representatives.
“The initial plan was to have a joint address, but unfortunately, it’s one of the examples of collateral damage in not having a Speaker - you can’t convene the House,” Courtney said.
“You can’t control what is going on right now with the Republican speaker problem, but it really would have been a great opportunity for the Prime Minister to give his viewpoint from the region at such a critical time.
“But we’ve certainly been getting the word out to as many members as possible that we think people should show respect for a great ally, and we’re hopeful we’re going to have a sizeable turnout.”
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