The Albanese government will axe restrictions on commercial US rocket launches in Australia, opening the door for the likes of Elon Musk to set up operations in the outback and help the two countries take on an ascendent China in the space race.
As part of his official visit to Washington, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will announce a major new deal that will boost Australia’s commercial space industry by greenlighting more satellite launches.
The space breakthrough – just months after Canberra angered the Biden administration by cutting space funding – comes as Mr Albanese was due to hold a one-on-one Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning (early Thursday AEDT).
At the welcome ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn, Mr Albanese was expected to warn that American leadership could not be taken for granted, and to praise Mr Biden for “the personal resolve” shown in response to Hamas’ terror attack on Israel.
He was expected to say Mr Biden had stood up for the principles that every Israeli and Palestinian life mattered, and in conflict, every effort must be made to protect civilians.
“American leadership is indispensable – but it is not inevitable,” Mr Albanese was expected to say, according to speech notes.
“It takes a leader to deliver it. It takes wisdom to show empathy, courage to provide humanitarian assistance – and true leadership to seek peace.
“Because protecting innocent people is not a show of weakness – it is a measure of strength.”
Mr Albanese was also expected to say the “heart of our alliance ... soul of our partnership” was “not a pact against a common enemy” but a pledge to a common cause.
“Where peace is secured not by fear of force or strength of arms alone – but through the collective commitment and the shared responsibility of the international community,” he was expected to say.
“A shared belief that freedom, peace and equality are not just American ideals or Australian values – they belong to all humankind.”
Mr Albanese’s strong endorsement of the 80-year-old Mr Biden comes amid questions over whether the elderly US president should run for a second term. He is grappling with a dysfunctional Congress and faces the likelihood the isolationist Donald Trump will win the Republican presidential nomination ahead of the 2024 election.
Mr Albanese ands his partner Jodie Haydon joined Mr Biden and his wife Jill Biden for a private three-course dinner at the White House on Tuesday night (Wednesday AEDT).
Mr Biden gave Mr Albanese a custom signature turntable from a family-owned American audio manufacturer, as well as an antique 1886 writing desk, while Ms Haydon was given a green enamel and diamond petite necklace.
Mr Albanese gave Mr Biden Fire Flower 8, a painting by Australian artist Katherine Boland depicting the regeneration of Australian flora after bushfires. Dr Biden was given a silver leaf brooch and silk scarf.
Mr Albanese and senior US officials indicated several major announcements were still to come over the final two days of the PM’s visit, including on battery technology and funding to transition to green energy, co-operation on artificial intelligence, partnering on undersea cables in the Pacific to enhance communication, as well as space.
US rocket launches on Aussie soil
Under current regulations, known as technology safeguard agreements, the US government space agency NASA can launch rockets from Australia, but private American companies are not allowed to do so.
Under the latest deal, however, US companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing, known as United Launch Alliance, will be allowed to take advantage of Australia’s geography and launch unlimited rockets into space.
Bottlenecks in the US have prevented commercial entities from launching satellites and other payloads into space. An expected 90,000 launch applications have now built up for the next five to seven years.
White House National Security Council co-ordinator for strategic communications John Kirby hinted at the importance of such a deal not just for the growth in commercial space industry but because of increased competition with China, which has been aggressively building up its space assets.
“We don’t believe that the space domain should be militarised, and we obviously are concerned about some Chinese activities in space,” Mr Kirby said.
“We believe that there needs to be rules of the road and international standards for how we all access space for our own interests and larger economic good.”
Previous budget cuts
In the May budget, Australia dumped its $1.2 billion plan to build a number of space satellites in a decision deemed “shortsighted” by the Space Industry Association of Australia.
The existing regulations are complicated but essentially they treat a US company’s rocket technology as if it is US sovereign-owned technology, which prevents it from being used in Australia.
The new regulations will give Australia complete autonomy over who is allowed to launch and who Australia supports, regardless of which country the company is from.
Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and rising tensions in the Middle East, which the leaders will discuss, Mr Kirby assured a briefing for Australian journalists that the Indo-Pacific remained “right at the top of the list” for the White House. Five out of seven US treaty alliances were with Indo-Pacific countries, he added.
“I’ve heard this speculation by some that because we’re so fixated on supporting Ukraine, and now of course we’re deeply involved in supporting Israel, that somehow we’re going to lose sight, or we’re going to lose focus on the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
“And I just got to tell you, from my perspective, I just don’t see it borne out in the facts.”
Asked how the White House viewed Mr Albanese’s visit to China next week, Mr Kirby said: “President Biden believes it is important that we keep lines of communication open with China.”
Mr Albanese used an Innovation Showcase to announce Australia would increase military aid to Ukraine by another $20 million to $910 million. The money would fund purchases of de-mining equipment, portable X-ray machines, a 3D metal printer, and counter-drone systems that have been developed by Australian firms Minelab, Micro-X, SPEE3D and DroneShield.
Following their bilateral meeting on Wednesday (US time), including a formal welcome ceremony and joint press conference, Mr Biden will host a state dinner for Mr Albanese and about 170 guests, including Business Council of Australia CEO Bran Black, ACTU President Michele O’Neil, Indigenous leader Professor Tom Calma and rugby league boss Peter V’landys.
A performance by rock band the B-52s has been canned, though, to avoid criticism of dressed-up guests dancing amid the crisis in Gaza.
Read the latest about Australia’s China challenge
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- China and Indo-Pacific ‘right at the top’ of Biden’s priorities The White House maintains it won’t let wars in Europe and the Middle East distract the US from the challenge posed by China.
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- Albanese confident Congress will pass AUKUS bills Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is not planning to increase Australia’s contribution to submarine production in the US to win over wavering senators.
- Taiwan warns Albanese: Don’t be blindsided by China Australia should use economic sanctions to punish Beijing if Taiwan is invaded, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu says.
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