Biden team offers opportunities for Morrison but also challenges
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Editorial

Biden team offers opportunities for Morrison but also challenges

Prime Minister Scott Morrison worked hard to cement the bonds of friendship with US President Donald Trump after Malcolm Turnbull's rocky start. But as Trump discovered this month, friendship is fungible when it comes to maintaining diplomatic bonds. Morrison was quick to call President-elect Joe Biden to congratulate him, reflecting in a commemorative tweet that "there are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the US".

The team that Biden has chosen – which will most likely be confirmed by the Senate, though the process could be rocky if Republicans still have the numbers – is made up of dependable centrists with extensive policy expertise. This is only remarkable because the Trump administration normalised wild-card choices and revolving door appointments.

For Australia, Biden's foreign policy choices offer real support, including in our fraught relationship with China, but the Biden agenda also throws up challenges that Australia must address.

Biden's speech on Wednesday, Australian time, explicitly spelled out his plan to re-engage with some of the thorny international dilemmas that never had buy-in from arch-isolationist Trump – the Middle East, global vaccination roll-outs, international trade and China's impact on nations other than the United States.

"America is back," the President-elect said, "ready to lead the world, not retreat from it, once again sit at the head of the table, ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies, ready to stand up for our values."

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That means the US will be able to work again with us and other nations – notably Britain and European nations – to provide a united stance against China's excesses, while allowing individual countries to negotiate without having to choose between superpowers.

Morrison could tell the Policy Exchange in London that he wasn't the US's yes man, that Australia had its own "unique interests or views", without having to placate the American administration. The Biden guys get it. They understand diplomatic nuance.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the new crew as a bunch of prevaricating policy wonks.

Even before Biden was elected, Australian ministers and officials had met Jake Sullivan, at 43 the youngest National Security Adviser in decades. But Sullivan already boasts more than a decade of high diplomacy, including a key role shaping the Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy at both the State Department and the White House.

Our Foreign Minister Marise Payne is already well acquainted with Biden's pick for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, who was at the table in 2015 when Australia and the US discussed the South China Sea. Blinken is described by our foreign affairs correspondent Anthony Galloway as "a foreign policy realist with an interventionist streak who will be stronger than Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and the Trump administration in speaking up about China's human rights abuses".

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Blinken has a reputation for making tough decisions quickly and as secretary of state won't be overruled by committee. But like everyone else Biden trusts, his real skill is in negotiating.

While Blinken and Sullivan might make life a little easier for Morrison and Payne on the world stage, there's one team member who represents a big challenge for Australia and that is the special envoy for climate, John Kerry. As a former secretary of state, presidential nominee and war hero, Kerry brings gravitas to a role that will ask a lot of America's allies.

Biden's climate change agenda – aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050 – goes well beyond signing back up to the Paris accords. Climate policy will be built into foreign trade and national security policies and according to policy documents, Biden wants “to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets”.

Morrison says he did not discuss the net-zero target with Biden in their first phone call but it was certainly the elephant in the room. It's a topic that is shaping early to be the most testing part of what should otherwise be a significantly easier relationship.

Note from the Editor

The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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