US Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday the United States would honour a controversial refugee deal with Australia, under which the United States would resettle 1,250 asylum seekers, a deal President Donald Trump had described as “dumb”.
Pence told a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney that the deal would be subject to vetting, and that honouring it “doesn’t mean that we admire the agreement”. “We will honour this agreement out of respect to this enormously important alliance,” Pence said at Turnbull’s harbourside official residence in Sydney.
Under the deal, agreed with former President Barack Obama late last year, the United States would resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on South Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
In return, Australia would resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The White House has already said it would apply “extreme vetting” to those asylum seekers held in the Australian processing centres seeking resettlement in the United States.
The deal has taken on added importance for Australia, which is under political and legal pressure to shut the camps, particularly one on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island where violence between residents and inmates has flared.
Australia’s relationship with the new administration in Washington got off to a rocky start when Trump lambasted Turnbull over the resettlement arrangement, which Trump labelled a “dumb” deal.
Details of an acrimonious phone call between the pair soon after Trump took office made headlines around the world. Pence was speaking on the final leg of a 10-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region that had already taken him to South Korea, Japan and Indonesia.
His trip to Australia is the first by a senior official in the Trump administration as the United States looks to strengthen economic ties and security cooperation amid disputes in the South China Sea and tension on the Korean peninsula.
Pence said an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, heading for waters off the Korean peninsula would be in the Sea of Japan within days.
He said Washington believed that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula could be achieved peacefully because of the Trump administration’s new engagement with China.