More than two months after President Donald Trump got into a spat with the leader of Australia, Vice President Mike Pence will be working to smooth over any lingering hard feelings. Pence will meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday as part of his 10-day, four-country trip to Asia. His agenda includes reassuring Turnbull about the state of the unusually strained US-Australia alliance and laying out the new administration’s priorities for the Pacific Rim. “Partly, you could call it a diplomatic clean-up mission,” said Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute, an analyst on Asian security issues. Auslin said Pence will be more focused on offering Turnbull a roadmap for how the two countries can work together during Trump’s presidency. “It’s about re-establishing relations.”
The affection the longtime allies usually share for each other is rooted in decades of cooperation on defense, intelligence and trade. Australia has fought alongside the US in every major conflict since World War I, and is one of the largest contributors to the US-led military campaign in Iraq and Syria. The country is also part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing programme with the US, along with Canada, Britain and New Zealand.
But Australia was unhappy with Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Then, Trump and Turnbull had a contentious phone call in January over a refugee resettlement deal struck by the previous Obama administration. Under the agreement, the US would take up to 1,250 refugees that Australia houses in detention camps on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Trump, who campaigned on tough-on-immigration policies, was enraged by the agreement, prompting a tense phone call with Turnbull and an angry tweet in which the president dubbed the deal “dumb.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s subsequent mispronunciation in press briefings of Turnbull’s name as “Trumbull” did not help matters. The fallout has left relations between the US and Australia at their lowest point since the Vietnam War, when Australia’s then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam criticized a series of bombings authorised by then-President Richard Nixon. Dougal Robinson, a research fellow with the United States Studies Centre in Sydney, said the timing of Pence’s visit to Australia a mere three months into Trump’s presidency is significant.
Robinson noted that it took Obama three years to visit Australia after he was elected, while former Vice President Joe Biden waited seven years before traveling Down Under. “In the aftermath of the Trump-Turnbull phone call, and no record of any conversation between the president and the prime minister since that phone call, the vice president is clearly coming to try to reassure Australia’s political leaders about US commitment to the alliance with Australia,” Robinson said.