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Biden canceled a trip to Papua New Guinea. The White House is on the defensive

President Biden boards Air Force One on May 17 to head to Hiroshima, Japan to attend the G-7. He canceled plans to carry on to Papua New Guinea and Australia because of debt ceiling talks.
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AP
President Biden boards Air Force One on May 17 to head to Hiroshima, Japan to attend the G-7. He canceled plans to carry on to Papua New Guinea and Australia because of debt ceiling talks.

The White House is defending its decision to cancel President Biden's plans to visit the tiny Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea and key ally Australia — stops that were aimed at demonstrating U.S. leadership in countering China.

Biden is still traveling to Japan to talk to G-7 leaders about the war in Ukraine and strengthening the global economy. But he's cutting short the rest of the trip because he said needs to get back to Washington to finish talks with congressional leaders on a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

The United States could run out of money to pay its bills as early as June 1. Defaulting on its debts would throw the economy into recession, and Biden has said his top priority was to make sure that doesn't happen.

President Biden delivers a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit at the White House before leaving for Japan on May 17, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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President Biden delivers a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit at the White House before leaving for Japan on May 17, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Papua New Guinea had declared a national holiday in honor of Biden's visit — which would have been the first ever visit from a sitting U.S. president. China's President Xi Jinping has been there, and China has invested a lot of money in projects for island nations.

Biden's top national security aide was pressed on whether the decision undercut its message in the region. But Jake Sullivan said concerns were overwrought.

"The final stretch of negotiations over the debt limit or over the budget cannot be done at a later date and that default can't be postponed. But the trip can be postponed," he said, noting Biden has already invited Australia's prime minister for a state visit and would also host Pacific Island leaders at the White House later this year.

Sullivan cited a long list of Indo-Pacific leaders who Biden has recently met with as a demonstration on the U.S. commitment to the region — and the defense pact the United Kingdom and Australia to provide Australia nuclear powered submarines.

"I think there is a degree of fairly dramatic over-cranking in saying that pushing off a visit to Australia and PNG speaks to the fundamentals of American diplomacy at this time," Sullivan said.

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Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.