SYDNEY – Vice President Mike Pence and Australia’s prime minister brushed off any lingering hostility over a contentious refugee deal and joined forces on Saturday to urge China to take a greater role in pressuring North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program.
Pence and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull repeatedly praised the decades-long American-Australian alliance following a meeting in Sydney, with the vice president thanking Turnbull for calling on Beijing to play a more active part in the international effort to de-escalate Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.
The two leaders appeared at pains to present a united front following an unusual period of tension between the longtime allies that was sparked by a spat between Turnbull and President Donald Trump over a refugee resettlement deal struck by the Obama administration.
Pence said Saturday that the U.S. would honor the agreement even if it didn’t agree with it. Under the deal, 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 agreement led to a tense phone call with Turnbull in January and an angry tweet in which the president called the deal “dumb.”
“President Trump has made it clear that we’ll honor the agreement — that doesn’t mean we admire the agreement,” Pence said during a joint press conference with Turnbull.
The fallout over the deal has strained the typically cozy alliance between the U.S. and Australia. A majority of Australians view Trump unfavorably, and some critics of him have urged Australia to distance itself from the U.S. in favor 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.
Pence’s visit Down Under, part of his 10-day, four-country trip to the Pacific Rim, is widely viewed as an effort to smooth over relations with Australia. Indeed, the vice president seemed determined to reassure Australia of its importance to the U.S., noting as he stood next to Turnbull on the shores of Sydney Harbour: “It’s always heartening to stand beside a friend, and I do so today.”
Both leaders also repeatedly cited the nations’ long history of military cooperation. 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.
“I trust that my visit here today on my very first trip to the Asia Pacific as vice president of the United States and the president’s plans to travel to this region this fall are a strong sign of our enduring commitment to the historic alliance between the people of the United States of America and the people of Australia,” Pence said.
Pence and Turnbull said they were aligned in their opinion that China should use its leverage with North Korea to de-escalate the nuclear threat from Pyongyang. Pence said the U.S. believes that it will be possible to achieve its objective of ending North Korea’s nuclear program peacefully, largely with the help of China.
Turnbull echoed the sentiments, saying: “The eyes of the world are on Beijing.”
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.
On Sunday, Pence will tour Sydney’s iconic Opera House, take a boat ride along the harbor and visit a local zoo.