Albanese tells US Congress he is clear-eyed on China threat

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Washington: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told US officials he is clear-eyed about the threat posed by China, as he made final rounds of Washington to allay concerns that America’s nuclear secrets and shipbuilding capacity would be jeopardised by the AUKUS submarine pact.

Unable to address a joint session of US Congress while Capitol Hill dealt with internal chaos, Albanese instead met personally with more than 60 Democrats and Republicans on Thursday morning (Friday AEDT) – including brand new House Speaker Mike Johnson – urging them to advance AUKUS legislation by the end of 2023 so his government can get on with the $368 billion plan.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Mike Johnson shortly after he was elected speaker of the US House of Representatives.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Top officials from the US Navy and the Department of Defence also threw their weight behind Albanese’s push, rejecting suggestions that helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines could strain American defence manufacturing centres, which have struggled to meet the country’s own targets.

“AUKUS is a call to action to strengthen our trilateral defence ecosystem,” Department of Defence under-secretary Marla Karlin said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday, backed by similar testimony from Navy Under Secretary Erik Raven, Commander William Houston, and Rear Admiral Jonathan Rucker.

“The submarine industrial base can and will support AUKUS,” Karlin said.

The push to advance AUKUS capped off Albanese’s whirlwind four-day state visit at the invitation of US President Joe Biden, who had earlier warned Albanese about the risks of dealing with China.

“Trust but verify is the phrase,” Biden said when asked if Australia could trust Beijing.

But in a speech delivered at the US State Department on Thursday as he prepared to head to China in eight days, Albanese said his government’s approach was “patient, calibrated and deliberate”.

“This means investing in our capabilities to prevent competition escalating into conflict, and investing in our relationships to maintain the dialogue that safeguards stability,” Albanese said.

“This is where Australia, like the United States, has been working to stabilise our relationship with China. We are clear-eyed about this. We are two nations with very different histories, values and political systems.

“Australia will always look to co-operate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage, in our national interest.”

Albanese’s comments were delivered at a lunch hosted by US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Guests included former speaker Nancy Pelosi, a firm supporter of Taiwan, and theUS ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, whose father John F Kennedy was cited as an inspiration during Albanese’s speech.

“As a great American president and the father of the current US ambassador to Australia proved 60 years ago during the Cuban Crisis, the true measure of a superpower’s strength is the ability to pull the world back from the brink of conflict,” Albanese said.

Albanese, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris during a state luncheon.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“Once again, that has become the test of our time. China has been explicit: it does not see itself as a status-quo power. It seeks a region and a world that is much more accommodating of its values and interests.”

The prime minister spent the final morning of his Washington trip assuring US politicians that Australia was not looking for “a free ride” at America’s expense.

Those he met included Democrat majority leader Chuck Schumer, Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell and Friends of Australia co-chair Joe Courtney, as well as politicians who had previously raised concerns about AUKUS.

Among them was Republican senator John Wicker, who has blocked AUKUS bills by requesting that they be contingent on increased defence funding and pushed Biden to release Pentagon cost estimates for the project. Albanese also met Republican senator Jack Reed, the co-author of a letter last year warning Biden that the pact could stretch the US industrial base to “breaking point”.

Albanese became the first foreign leader to meet with Johnson, who landed the job of House Speaker on Wednesday afternoon and is an ally of Donald Trump. Johnson backed the former president’s bid to overturn the 2020 election.

Albanese declared he was “very confident” about AUKUS following the talks, raising expectations that US Congress would approve changes to technology export controls to ensure Australia would gain the three Virginia-class submarines early next decade.

“We were laser-focused on AUKUS and the legislation that’s required, and there’s been big steps forward on that,” Albanese told this masthead. “Just the engagement across the House and the Senate, and just the fact that the first meeting that the new Speaker has had was with me.”

In addition to export control reforms, several pieces of legislation still need to be passed to make AUKUS a reality, including: laws to enable the Virginia-class submarines to be transferred to Australia; a bill that would categorise Australia as a “domestic source” for military production under the US Defence Production Act; and a $3.4 billion White House funding request to strengthen the US Navy’s industrial base.

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