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Renewing the alliance: the Biden administration and what it means for Australia

Daniel Hurst
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s final day in office has sparked fresh political debate in Australia about whether Scott Morrison allowed himself to get too close to the outgoing US president. But the focus will soon shift to building bridges with the incoming Joe Biden administration.

What will the new administration mean for Australia when it comes to renewing the alliance, navigating tensions with a rising China, dealing with a newly ambitious US approach to climate policy, working together on global trade rules and reforming global bodies?

Renewing the alliance

Biden and his top advisers have made clear he will restore a more conventional relationship with allies such as Australia – turning the page on Trump’s “America First” approach that was often seen as prioritising the outgoing president’s own instincts and preferences over coordination with partners.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has made positive noises about working with the Australian government. He has said Biden would be “eager to develop a really strong relationship” with Morrison. Regardless of any political or policy differences, Sullivan predicts Biden and Morrison will “get off to a strong start” because the former vice-president sees Australia as the kind of partner central to finding successful strategies on a wide range of global issues.

That coordination will be helped by the fact that a number of Biden’s senior cabinet appointees and other nominees to key positions are well known to the Australian government. For example, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, has met and worked with Biden’s secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, in the past.

But the opposition Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has chided Morrison for not meeting any senior Democrats when he visited the US in 2019 and has argued the incoming administration will have noticed the prime minister’s failure to forcefully condemn Trump for his role in inciting the deadly riots at the US Capitol.

Related: Scott Morrison accused of 'pandering' to Trump and damaging relations with Biden

Morrison hit back on Wednesday, telling 2GB radio: “If people want to have a crack at me because I worked with the president of the United States, well I think that reflects more on them than me.” He said the alliance was bigger than personalities and would endure: “Whoever the prime minister is and whoever the president is, it’s important that … both of us steward that relationship for the benefit of both of our countries.”

Navigating tensions with a more powerful China

Morrison has predicted the arrival of the Biden administration could change some of the “atmospherics” in the tense relationship between the US and China. The US-China relationship is seen in Canberra as one of the biggest drivers of the dynamics in our region, so the government will be watching closely. That comes as the Australian government seeks to navigate its own rocky ties with China.

Australian officials are pleased with the incoming Biden administration’s signals about greater coordination with allies on issues such as China. While Australian government insiders cite elements of coordination during the Trump administration – and the revitalisation of the Quad that also includes Japan and India – Australia would welcome the prospect of constructive talks on strategy.

Still, there is not likely to be any major change in America’s posture of competition with China, given the new bipartisan consensus in Washington for a hard line on Beijing. Blinken may seek to carve out areas of cooperation: he has foreshadowed trying to work with China on issues such as climate change, dealing with health emergencies and preventing the spread of dangerous weapons. But he has also said the US needs to take steps to “deter aggression if China pursues it” and that “we are in a competition with China”. In a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Blinken backed outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s declaration that China has committed genocide against Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

Antony blinken
Secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, has foreshadowed trying to work with China on issues such as climate change, but he has also said the US needs to take steps to ‘deter aggression if China pursues it’. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The Australian government is pleased with some of the key picks who will be influential in shaping China policy, including Kurt Campbell, who served as Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs and was responsible for the US pivot to Asia. Campbell will serve on Biden’s national security council (NSC) as coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.

In an article he co-wrote for Foreign Affairs earlier this month, Campbell called for an Indo-Pacific strategy that incorporated “the need for a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognise as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both”.

Campbell criticised China over “South China Sea island building, East China Sea incursions, conflict with India, threats to invade Taiwan, and internal repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang” and said: “This behaviour, combined with China’s preference for economic coercion, most recently directed against Australia, means that many of the order’s organising principles are at risk.”

Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, has reached out to Australia by sending a signal of support in December amid the storm over a Chinese official’s tweet about Australia and a series of trade actions against Australian export sectors.

Dealing with US pivot on climate action

Climate will be an area that will be tricky for the Australian government to navigate, given it has so far resisted calls to formally commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry will be at the centre of efforts to push countries to lift their level of ambition, having been named as Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate. Biden will act quickly to reverse Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and has vowed to put the US on an irreversible course to net zero emissions by 2050.

Sullivan has foreshadowed some difficult conversations with allies regarding climate action – reflecting the importance Biden has placed on helping to spur more ambitious global action. Sullivan has said while Biden would hold heavy emitters such as China accountable for doing more “he’s also going to push our friends to do more as well” because everyone needs to “up their game”. Biden would be respectful with allies, Sullivan said, “but he’s not going to pull any punches on it”.

To date, Morrison has played down the appearance of a split on climate policy. Speaking to reports about the initial post-election congratulatory call he had with Biden in November, Morrison said the “specific matter” of a target of net zero emissions by 2050 was not discussed, but he had raised the similarity of their policies on emissions reduction technology.

Related: World leaders deserve to know about Australia's abysmal climate change policy, so I wrote to them | Bob Carr

But in remarks since the US election, and after a growing number of Australia’s trading partners committed to the 2050 goal, Morrison has sounded more positive about net zero, arguing Australia aspired to get there “as quickly as possible”. He has also pivoted on Kyoto carryover credits.

Trade and economic issues

Australia will be hoping for a return to predictability on trade and economic issues. Trump caused consternation with allies such as Australia by inking a “phase 1” trade deal with Xi Jinping in early 2020 that committed China to buy vast quantities of goods from the US. That has been likened to a purchasing agreement rather than something consistent with global trading rules. Trump also forced allies to negotiate exemptions on tariffs on steel and aluminium.

The Biden team is likely to work with Australia and other countries on seeking reform of the World Trade Organization. Campbell’s Foreign Policy piece said the Biden administration “should pursue bespoke or ad hoc bodies focused on individual problems, such as the D-10 proposed by the United Kingdom (the G-7 democracies plus Australia, India, and South Korea).” Such coalitions, Campbell said, would be “most urgent for questions of trade, technology, supply chains, and standards”.

But there is unlikely to be any swift return of the US to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific rim trade pact that Australia and Japan helped rescue after Trump pulled out.


Australian officials are also looking forward to working with the US in multilateral forums. Trump’s instinct was to retreat from such bodies – and Morrison has previously given a nod to such views with his previous speech on “negative globalism”. But the government made clear, after an audit last year, that it would step up its level of engagement in global bodies while seeking reform to ensure they are as effective as possible. Australian officials welcome the understanding from the Biden team that multilateral and big organisations can bring frustrations and take time, but walking away from the space is not the answer.