Scott Morrison’s talks with Joe Biden will dominate this week - but don’t miss the detail

ANALYSIS: While the Prime Minister's meetings with the US President will likely hog the headlines during his overseas visit this week, the importance of smoothing over relations with other countries over climate and defence concerns can't be overlooked.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison Source: AAP

The President of the United States has today declared his country has "no closer and more reliable ally" than Australia, but that allegiance isn’t coming without a cost.

Scott Morrison and Joe Biden held their first in-person one-on-one meeting on Tuesday in New York.

But just before those cordial discussions, Mr Morrison was working to smooth over the seismic diplomatic ructions that followed the decision to dump the $90 billion deal with France to build new submarines.

While France has already recalled its ambassador to Australia and labelled the Prime Minister a backstabber, there are broader fears about how the European Union is responding to the move made by the leaders of Australia, the US and the UK last week.

The Prime Minister has also moved to arrange a meeting with the European Council, which guides the European Union’s politics and decision-making.

The Australian side said the talks were a chance for Mr Morrison to explain the purposes of the new AUKUS pact and the circumstances surrounding the French decision.

The Prime Minister maintains it’s in Australia’s interests to invest in nuclear-powered submarines through the technology provided by the US and UK governments.

According to a statement, Mr Morrison also reaffirmed the need for European nations to have “greater involvement” in contributing to a stable Indo-Pacific region.

The discussion was described as open and constructive, and a way for the Prime Minister to directly reinforce his interest in striking a free trade deal with the EU.

But only yesterday France was pushing the EU to scupper those free trade discussions, and despite Australian hopes of an agreement on that front this year, it’s hard to see how one could be struck if France is bluntly opposed.


Other EU players such as Sweden become crucial now, and Mr Morrison met Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on Tuesday as well.

“We’re good friends and we work together in a whole range of areas,” Mr Morrison observed in his opening remarks. Mr Lofven agreed the two countries have a “good relationship” and specifically mentioned “increasing trade”.

But the potential fly in the ointment that complicates the EU relationship even further is the continuing pressure the group of nations has attempted to apply to Australia over its climate record.

The Biden-Morrison engagement on Tuesday was a precursor to the headline act later this week, when the Quad grouping that also includes Japan and India meets at the White House where climate action is again expected to feature. 

Mr Biden has already identified the big issues for that meeting, which include ending COVID-19, defencing democracy and “addressing the climate crisis”.


Sandwiched in between all the other global talks the Prime Minister is having this week is a virtual meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. 

The PIF is already frustrated - to the point of despair in some low-lying nations – about the lack of concrete commitments on curbing emissions.

They also want stability in the Indo-Pacific, and those watching the region will be listening closely to the UN General Assembly speeches from Pacific leaders to see if they keep voicing concerns about the encroachment of nuclear-powered armaments into the region.

Australia’s decision to “go nuclear” with the submarines (it's important to remember we're talking about nuclear power, not nuclear weaponry) has served as a provocation that’s spilled over beyond defence and security policy.

The hardest part will be navigating the fallout in a way that serves the national interests the Prime Minister says governed the decision in the first place.

Anna Henderson is the chief political correspondent for SBS News.

Published 22 September 2021 at 6:29am, updated 22 September 2021 at 7:59am
By Anna Henderson
Source: SBS News