In the Trump era, journalists didn’t have to speculate about what a US president said to an Australian prime minister during a private phone call. Famously, the entire transcript of a fraught conversation between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 was leaked.
But in more sedate times, leaders provide their own readouts.
After speaking with Joe Biden on Thursday for the first time since the president took office, Scott Morrison told reporters the new occupant of the White House did not press him to adopt more ambitious commitments on climate action.
A separate readout from the White House does not contradict that point. It states the two leaders “discussed how we can work together to address global and regional challenges, including dealing with China, beating the Covid-19 pandemic, and combating climate change”.
Analysts believe that Biden – a president who describes climate change as an “existential threat to the planet” and who has a substantial climate change agenda – will push the Morrison government to accelerate policy ambition.
But Morrison says the president sought no additional commitments from Australia during their introductory conversation. Morrison said the two leaders had discussed “achieving a net zero pathway through technology”.
“We had a very positive discussion about the path we’re on, and the commitments that we’ve made,” the prime minister said.
Australia is yet to make a commitment to achieving net zero by 2050.
Biden will host a climate summit in April. The president has set that summit as a deadline to announce a new emissions reduction target for 2030 to put the US on the path to net zero by 2050. Biden is also pursuing a carbon-free power supply by 2035.
Morrison said Australia’s invitation to that event was “coming”. He characterised Thursday morning’s conversation as warm. The prime minister said Biden saw the Australia-US relationship “as providing the anchor for peace and security in our region” – and that was also Australia’s view.
“In terms of our relations between Australia and the United States, there’s nothing to fix there, only things to build on,” Morrison said.
Apart from climate change, curiosity ahead of the conversation between the leaders centred on what Biden would telegraph about his administration’s disposition on China. Morrison said the two leaders had discussed “regional issues in the Indo-Pacific” – meaning the geopolitical tensions created by a rising China – “fully”.
As well as China, the White House readout also revealed that the pair discussed the coup in Myanmar, following calls from human rights groups for Australia to suspend defence cooperation and impose additional sanctions on the military leaders. “They also agreed to work together, alongside other allies and partners, to hold to account those responsible for the coup in Burma,” the White House readout states.
Morrison didn’t reference the Myanmar conversation in his account of the call, and the Australian PM was also circumspect when asked by reporters to give more detail about Biden’s view of Beijing.
Without getting into chapter and verse, Morrison’s suggestion was there would be continuity. There would be “differences in how [the relationship was] expressed and the nuances” from administration to administration – but the call with Biden had reinforced the fact Australia would have “a very, very strong and effective partner on these issues of Indo-Pacific security”.
Morrison has previously predicted that the arrival of the Biden administration could change some of the “atmospherics” in the tense relationship between the US and China, but officials in Canberra expect the US will continue to take a tough line towards Beijing, given the political consensus in Washington has hardened.
While there is unlikely to be a shift away from America’s competitive posture, Biden and his team have emphasised working closely with allies like Australia to tackle those challenges – a prospect that is welcomed in Canberra. Australia has suffered a series of trade actions from Beijing as the relationship soured over the past year.
Biden’s call with Morrison on Thursday followed a flurry of calls between Australian ministers and incoming US officials.
The defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said after a call with the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, last week that the Australia-US alliance had never been more important. Without naming China, Reynolds cited “our strategic challenges”.
Austin was stronger in his language, tweeting that the two countries would stand together “to face the challenges and threats to a free and open Indo-Pacific”, while the Pentagon said the defence secretary had called for a region “free of malign behaviour”.
The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, has also spoken with the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan has previously indicated that like-minded democratic allies would be at the heart of a Biden administration foreign policy because that was the platform upon which the US could most effectively deal with great power competition and transnational challenges.
But Sullivan has also foreshadowed that Biden would not pull any punches in conversations with allies regarding climate action, reflecting the importance the Democratic president has placed on spurring more ambitious global action.
Sullivan said last year that while Biden would hold heavy emitters such as China accountable for doing more, “he’s also going to push our friends to do more as well” because everyone needs to “up their game”.
The former US secretary of state John Kerry, who is Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, spoke last week with Australia’s minister for emissions reduction, Angus Taylor. The pair reportedly agreed to establish a joint working group on technologies that would reduce emissions – a focus Morrison has been keen to promote – rather than an emphasis on the timing of the net zero target.