Pence set for charm offensive in Australia
US Vice President Mike Pence is expected to turn on the charm for Malcolm Turnbull during his whirlwind weekend visit to Sydney.
The two-day visit is part of a 10-day tour of Asia Pacific nations by the second most powerful man in the US, who wants to reassure America’s allies.
In recent weeks, US President Donald Trump has been making nice with the leaders of China and Japan after ruffling their feathers during last year’s election campaign.
But it’s down to Pence to make up with Turnbull on Trump’s behalf after their notorious phone call in January when the US president blasted the Australian prime minister over an asylum seeker deal during their first leaders phone call.
The robust discussion left a cloud over Australia’s famously tight-knit relationship with the US.
Many Australians were already wary of Trump, with a Lowy Institute poll last April showing almost half wanted Canberra to distance itself from Washington if the billionaire Republican moved into the White House.
So Pence has a pretty big task ahead of him to start charming Aussies and their leaders.
While key issues like North Korea, Syria, trade and Australia’s plan to send asylum seeker refugees to the US will be on the table for discussion, observers believe Pence’s main role is to facilitate a detente between Trump and Turnbull.
“Obviously, Australians were really shocked by the nature of the phone call between Mr Turnbull and Mr Tump,” Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove told AAP.
“In a way it shouldn’t have been surprising, perhaps, that Donald Trump has a poor telephone manner.
“But given that Australia regards itself as America’s most reliable ally we wouldn’t ordinarily expect that the president of the United States would treat our prime minister with disrespect.”
Fullilove believes the fallout from that call gives Australia’s political leaders a bit of leverage when Pence arrives to make peace.
“I think they want to take advantage of this opportunity to talk to the second most important official in the US. to talk about the closeness of the relationship from Canberra’s point of view, but also the importance of alliances and the international order,” he said.
“It’s trying to turn the vice president into an advocate for Australia as a way of recalibrating the approach to the relationship.”
Pence embarked on his Asia Pacific tour last week and has so far visited South Korea, Japan and Indonesia.
The timing of his Australia visit comes against a backdrop of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and increasing tensions between the US and Russia over the Syrian war.
There’s also been plenty of confusion about regional trade after Trump scratched plans for the US to sign off on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which included Australia, Japan and 10 other countries, saying it would lead to US job losses.
While in Japan, Pence held talks with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe about a possible free trade deal between their countries.
Australia’s own free trade agreement with the US, signed 12 years ago, and other investment opportunities are to be discussed during talks in Sydney between Pence and Trade Minister Steve Ciobio, who remains hopeful the TPP can be resurrected without the US on board.
Fullilove says Pence’s role is to be an “instrument of reassurance” for allies like Australia and Japan in terms of Trump’s intentions for US trade relations as well as the dilemmas posed by North Korea and the war in Syria.
“On Syria, we don’t really know what his strategy is,” he said.
“We know he was prepared to authorise a cruise missile strike to deter the use of chemical weapons but that’s not the same as a strategy to end the Syrian war.
“So we don’t know what the approach is there or if it has implications for us, so I’m sure they’ll (Mr Turnbull and his senior ministers) will want insights from Mr Pence into Trump’s thinking.”
During his time in South Korea and Japan, Pence emphasised Trump’s desire to “marshal the support of our allies in the region” in relation to pressuring North Korea into dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program.
Both Canberra and Washington hope China will help bring North Korea into line amid fears it may soon have the nuclear missile capability to hit the US, Australia.
This united front on North Korea gives some hope that the groundwork has been laid for Pence to help get the US-Australia relationship back on track.