Welcome to the Biden administration: what do the key picks mean for Australia?

Daniel Hurst
·6-min read

The arrival of the Biden administration could change some of the “atmospherics” in the tense relationship between the US and China, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison suggested this week. As the Australian government seeks to navigate its own rocky ties with China, the prospect of constructive talks with the US is likely to be welcomed in Canberra.

Related: Australia's foreign affairs chief cautions China against resorting to 'coercion'

Meet some of the key people Joe Biden has named in senior roles this week and what they will mean for relations with China, tackling climate change and more.

Antony Blinken

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, will be dealing with Antony Blinken, who has been nominated to the senior cabinet position of US secretary of state. Blinken, who was a senior foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign and previously served as a deputy US secretary of state in the Obama administration, is experienced in diplomacy.

Blinken believes Donald Trump made strategic errors by failing to properly coordinate with allies and by withdrawing from international institutions – giving China an opening to fill. “We need to rally our allies and partners instead of alienating them to deal with some of the challenges that China poses,” Blinken told a Hudson Institute event in early July.

Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken speaks after being introduced by president-elect Joe Biden on 24 November.
Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken. Photograph: Mark Makela/Getty Images

That signals Blinken will listen to feedback from allies such as Australia in framing policies towards China, and that the US will again become active in multilateral bodies, something that will please officials in Canberra. The outgoing US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has previously worried some countries in the region by making broad statements like “the freedom-loving nations of the world must induce China to change” and by shunning UN bodies. Pompeo’s past comments sound very much like a kind of binary choice that Morrison warned against in a speech this week, in which the prime minister also called on the major powers to give Australia room to move.

Blinken has foreshadowed trying to work with China on issues such as climate change, dealing with health emergencies and preventing the spread of dangerous weapons. But one thing that is unlikely to change is America’s overall posture towards a rising China. Blinken has said the US needs to take steps to “deter aggression if China pursues it” and that “we are in a competition with China and there’s nothing wrong with competition if it’s fair”. Blinken has also said the US needs to speak up for its values – similar to the Morrison government’s insistence that Australia is right to speak up about China’s human rights record and other actions.

Jake Sullivan

Biden will also be relying on advice from Jake Sullivan when it comes to framing America’s approach to security challenges including strategic issues with China. Sullivan, named as Biden’s new national security adviser, was the national security adviser to Biden when he was vice-president in the Obama administration.

Sullivan has made positive noises about working with Australia. He said earlier this year that Biden would be “eager to develop a really strong relationship” with Morrison. They were likely to “get off to a strong start” because the former vice-president saw Australia as the kind of partner that was central to a finding successful strategies when faced with a range of issues in a fast-changing world.

Joe Biden’s national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan speaking after his nomination was announced.
Biden’s national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

In a wide-ranging podcast interview with the Lowy Institute in September, Sullivan said 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.

“Allies are going to have pride of place in the hierarchy of priorities in a Biden administration foreign policy,” Sullivan said. “And yes, the rise of China is at or near the top of the list of big global challenges that we all have to be working effectively together on.”

However, Sullivan has also foreshadowed some difficult conversations with allies regarding climate action – reflecting the importance Biden has placed on helping to spur more ambitious global action and returning the US to the Paris agreement.

In the same podcast interview, Sullivan said 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”. Biden would be respectful with allies, Sullivan said, “but he’s not going to pull any punches on it”.

John Kerry

Former US secretary of state John Kerry will be at the centre of those efforts to push countries to lift their level of ambition, having been named as Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate.

Biden’s climate envoy nominee John Kerry.
Biden’s climate envoy nominee John Kerry. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Kerry has a longstanding interest in the issue, having signed the 2015 Paris agreement on behalf of the US – a deal from which Trump withdrew his country. Biden has vowed to re-enter the Paris accord from his first day in office in late January 2021.

A column in the Australian newspaper this week was highly critical of Kerry and reported that the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott found the then secretary of state “relentlessly focused on climate change as a security issue”. However, that is by no means a fringe view.

Related: Australia spends $500,000 to strengthen tech ties with Quad allies amid China tension

In 2015, a report on community consultations for the Australian government’s defence white paper flagged the consequences of climate change, extreme weather events and environmental pressures as a significant security risk for Australia – second only to the risks posed by terrorism. This was because of the increased need for humanitarian and disaster relief activities, along with climate change driving future unregulated cross-border movements of people.

Kerry will sit on the national security council, reflecting the importance Biden places on climate in security deliberations.

Janet Yellen

The Morrison government and the Biden administration place a high priority on the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, although the US starts from a position of severe crisis as the virus still runs rampant across that country.

Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen.
Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen. Photograph: Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters

Janet Yellen, the former US Federal Reserve chair and former economics professor, will be charged with charting a course to economic recovery as Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary. Yellen is a well known figure on the world stage, given her past experience, and she travelled to Australia in 2014 for G20 meetings.

If confirmed to head Treasury, Yellen will be dealing with the Australian treasurer, Josh Frydenbeg, who has recently championed economic talks among the finance ministers from the Five Eyes countries, which also includes the UK, Canada and New Zealand. Frydenberg has argued the once-in-a-century pandemic only increases the importance of regular talks to share notes on economic recovery strategies.