SYDNEY, April 22 — US Vice President Mike Pence will try make a disastrous first telephone call between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull ancient history when he meets the Australian prime minister today.
After a surly first conversation between the two leaders in January that rattled the United States and Australia's long-standing alliance, Pence will take a more amiable approach and try to focus on cooperation on trade, defence and more.
Trump reportedly exploded and cut short the call when he was told about a deal to move some refugees from Australia to America.
That left some in Australia questioning the mercurial president's commitment to the decades-old relationship.
“I really do think it's ancient history,” said a White House foreign policy advisor, ahead of Pence's arrival in Sydney late yesterday. “We're really focusing on the positives.”
“We've got historically a very, very strong relationship with Australia, we've got a great relationship with their government officials, we've already had many meetings with them considering we are not even at 100 days.”
Under Trump, friction points between Washington and Canberra have piled up, despite the administration's belated decision to uphold the refugee agreement.
Trump has also cancelled an already completed trans-Pacific trade deal that would have given Australian firms better access to markets in the United States and several key regional markets.
That reversal only deepened the belief, held by some Australian officials, that the country's interests would be best served by rebalancing toward China, a vast market on its doorstep.
With that in mind, Trump administration officials are striking a markedly more conciliatory tone.
“We are the number two in the economy in this sense,” said the White House advisor. “Obviously they lead with China. They are in the region, proximity matters to them.”
“They are a bedrock in the Asia-Pacific region, they have had those long-standing economic ties to China as well.”
China will also loom large when discussions turn to the South China Sea, where Beijing has been flexing its muscles to realise controversial territorial claims.
The Trump administration has been far from clear about its response to that issue — one that will have massive repercussions for the freedom of shipping and for Australia's export-driven economy.
According to the White House foreign policy advisor, the administration will be looking to tap Australia's deep understanding of the issue.
“The wonderful thing about relationships is that much like a marriage it's about speaking and listening,” the official said.
The South China Sea is one of 15 issues that Trump's National Security Council has identified as being in need of review.
“We look forward to Australia's input and ideas on how we can better formulate that strategy on the South China Sea.” — AFP