SYDNEY, Australia—Vice-President Mike Pence sought to reassure Australia on Saturday that the U.S. remains committed to the countries’ longtime alliance, as he tried to patch up relations that were left frayed when President Donald Trump got into a spat with Australia’s leader over a refugee resettlement deal.
Pence met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other Australian leaders in Sydney as part of his 10-day, four-country trip to the Pacific Rim. His agenda includes reassuring Turnbull about the state of the unusually strained U.S.-Australia alliance and laying out the new administration’s priorities for the region.
“I bring greetings this morning from the President of the United States,” Pence told Turnbull and other Australian officials ahead of their meeting. “I spoke to him first thing and he wanted me to pass along his very best regards to you. And the president wanted me to — early in this administration — to reaffirm the strong and historical alliance between the United States and Australia.”
Pence’s visit Down Under is widely viewed as an effort to smooth over relations with Australia in the wake of a highly-publicized argument between Turnbull and Trump. After taking office, Trump was infuriated upon learning that the previous Obama administration had agreed to a refugee resettlement deal with Australia. Under the agreement, the U.S. 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’s anger over the deal led to a tense phone call with Turnbull in January and an angry tweet in which the president dubbed the deal “dumb.”
The fallout has strained the typically cozy alliance between the U.S. and Australia. A majority of Australians view Trump unfavourably, and some critics of the president have urged Australia to distance itself from the U.S. in favour of stronger ties with China. Turnbull has resisted pressure to choose between the two countries, both of which are considered vital allies; the U.S. is Australia’s most important security partner, while China is its most important trading partner.
The affection Australia and the U.S. usually share for each other is rooted in decades of co-operation on defence, intelligence and trade. Australia has fought alongside the U.S. in every major conflict since World War I, and is one of the largest contributors to the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq and Syria. The country is also part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing program with the U.S., along with Canada, Britain and New Zealand.
Earlier Saturday, Pence met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, who said the relationship between the countries is as strong as it was since “the first time we saw each other on the battlefield in 1919.” Cosgrove said the alliance that began during World War I started an “unbreakable relationship.”
“We’ve been with you every step of the way,” Cosgrove told Pence.
Pence is also scheduled to meet with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the leader of the opposition party, Bill Shorten. On Sunday, he will tour Sydney’s iconic Opera House and visit a local zoo.