The US has pulled out its incoming ambassador to Australia, Admiral Harry Harris, and assigned him to the post in South Korea, media reports said. President Donald Trump’s administration took the call on Tuesday, just hours before his confirmation hearing.
The move has come as a shock to the Australian government, which had welcomed Harris’ appointment to the post which had been left vacant for 18 months, Xinhua news agency reported. Last envoy John Berry left the role in 2016. Tapping top US military official, Harris, who is overseeing operations across Asia for Seoul, was Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo’s idea, the CNN said.
It comes ahead and in view of potential talks between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, informed sources told CNN. Pompeo proposed the switching of the destination for Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, pending Trump’s blessing. His confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Australia was scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed.
“At the request of the administration, the hearing has been postponed until early May,” said Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker. While Seoul is arguably the most important diplomatic post with potential Kim talks looming, Australia is also a “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partner of the US.
Australia has played down the diplomatic hassle. Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said she “understands” the decision but expects the appointment of a new ambassador to become a “priority”. Bishop downplayed the significance of the move which some have described as disrespectful, Xinhua said.
“I understand when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is confirmed as we assume he will be over the next few days then the appointment of an ambassador to Australia will be a priority.”
“(Australia) is a victim of the Trump administration’s shambolic personnel practices,” said Andrew Shearer, a former national security adviser to Australian Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. Harris’ nomination had strong bipartisan support. He would have been an effective advocate at a time when the US alliance is a topic of increasing debate because of China’s rise and its economic importance to Australia,” Shearer added.
The White House did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment. The Washington Post had first reported plans to move Harris to South Korea. During his tenure at Pacific Command, Harris has not minced words about North Korea’s ambitions.