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Joe Biden’s advisers say he doesn’t want to drag Pacific allies into ‘headlong clash’ between US and China

Joe Biden’s senior advisers have acknowledged countries in the Indo-Pacific don’t want to be “trampled by a headlong clash” between the US and China.

In a webinar with an Australian audience on Friday, senior White House national security council (NSC) officials said the US president wanted to give allies and other close partners “breathing space” to engage with China constructively.

Edgard Kagan, the NSC’s senior director for east Asia and Oceania, said Biden had been listening to the region’s concerns.

“I think the president is very focused on the fact that we cannot strengthen our relations with allies and partners if we just try and jam our views down their throat,” Kagan said. “That’s not who he is.”

Beijing has accused the G7 countries of collaborating to “smear and attack” it at last weekend’s summit in Hiroshima, Japan, after leaders outlined strong concerns about China’s actions in the region.

But after attending the summit, Biden told reporters to expect improvements in the US-China relationship, adding: “In terms of talking with them, I think you’re going to see that thaw very shortly.”

The Australian government is also seeking to “stabilise” its relationship with China, with the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, suggesting he is open to travelling to Beijing later this year if restrictions on Australian exports are removed.

Kagan said on Friday that Biden had “long been very clear that he does not want conflict” with China, even though there would be “very serious competition” between the two countries.

“We both have strong interests and important interests but that doesn’t mean that can’t find ways in which we’re able to at least sit down together, work together where possible,” Kagan told the webinar hosted by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, the director for Indo-Pacific strategy at the NSC, admitted the tone of Biden’s recent comments seeking constructive talks with China was also “an important tool of alliance management”.

She acknowledged that allies and partners, within the region and across the world, “don’t want to feel like they’re being forced to choose between two competing great powers”.

“They don’t want to feel like they’re being trampled by a headlong clash,” Rapp-Hooper said.

“He chose to signal that to the rest of the world, as well, because for so many allies and partners having that bit of breathing space where they feel like they, too, can engage China on constructive terms if they need to or want to is really important.”

Biden cut short his trip to the region, postponing planned trips to Papua New Guinea and Australia, so that he could focus on the high-stakes negotiations with congressional republicans over the debt ceiling.

That forced the cancellation of the planned Quad summit at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday, although the leaders of the US, Japan, Australia and India still met in Hiroshima.

Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the NSC, told the same webinar that Biden still travelled to Japan because postponing the entire trip would be “catastrophic”.

Campbell acknowledged there were “obvious concerns and worries” within the Indo-Pacific about whether the region could “count on the United States” to be a “steady predictable force”.

He said Biden had expressed his “deepest regrets” to Albanese and the pair had still proceeded with the signing of a “blockbuster agreement on climate and the provision of critical minerals”.

Biden and Albanese also took steps to ensure “all elements of Aukus”, including the nuclear-powered submarine plan and collaboration on other advanced defence technology, were “on track”.

A report issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Friday said Aukus and other moves would see the defence relationship between Australia and the US “grow in scope and complexity”

But US military personnel commonly did “not fully grasp” Australia’s sensitivities to maintaining its own sovereignty, according to Col Alan W Throop, a US Army War College fellow at Aspi.

He called on the US Department of Defense to “understand that sovereignty is essential when dealing with the Australian Defence system”.

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