Rupert Murdoch will on Thursday introduce Donald Trump at a dinner to honour Malcolm Turnbull in New York, an event that marks an improvement in US-Australia relations after an earlier spat between the two country’s leaders.
Returning to New York for the first time as president, Mr Trump will speak aboard the USS Intrepid, now a museum on the Hudson River, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the US and Australia joined forces in a victory over the Japanese. The president will also hold a meeting with the Australian prime minister, and they will later attend a well-heeled dinner aboard the carrier.
The dramatic scene for their first meeting comes three months after Mr Trump lambasted Mr Turnbull for using their first telephone call to talk about a refugee resettlement deal, which had been agreed during the Obama administration but cut against the grain of Mr Trump’s view on refugees. The fight prompted the US president to label it his “worst call by far” with a foreign leader and cut short the telephone conversation.
Thursday’s meeting comes after Mike Pence, the US vice-president, travelled to Australia to smooth out some of the wrinkles in what is one of America’s most important alliances. One person familiar with the agenda said the leaders would focus on North Korea, Iraq and Syria, as well as economic issues including infrastructure, a key plank of Mr Trump’s domestic agenda.
“The US alliance is the absolute bedrock of Australia’s security and we have a lot of big issues to discuss,” Mr Turnbull said on the eve of his visit to the US. “Our national interests have been coinciding, working together in freedom’s cause for all that time and presidents and prime ministers have a very important role to play.”
The symbolism of the anniversary of the 1942 sea battle provides an opportunity for both leaders to highlight the importance of their status as allies. Mr Turnbull will be aiming to bolster public support for the 65-year-old alliance at home, where Mr Trump’s electoral victory has caused some Australian politicians to call for a recalibration of the bilateral relationship.
The White House did not explain why Mr Murdoch was chosen to introduce the president, although the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox supported Mr Trump in the election. Wesley Bush, chief executive of Northrop Grumman, the US defence contractor, will introduce Mr Turnbull, according to the person familiar with the schedule.
Mr Murdoch, who is Australian-born but became a US citizen in 1985, has hosted prime ministers from his native country in New York before. In 2014 he held a dinner for Tony Abbott, the former prime minister who Mr Turnbull ousted in 2015. His stable of newspapers in Australia are staunch supporters of Mr Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition government.
Australia wants the US to underline its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, where Canberra believes the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme and China’s move to militarise islands in the South China Sea requires a united response from the US and its allies.
“Mr Turnbull should shape the administration’s still unformed Asia policy by ensuring that the US remains constructively engaged in the region,” said Alan Dupont, an analyst at the Lowy Institute. “He should make the case for the importance of acting in concert with allies and like-minded countries, especially Australia.”
Canberra has stepped up criticism of North Korea in recent weeks as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have escalated after a series of missile tests and growing concern that North Korea is moving closer to being able to hit the US with a nuclear-armed missile. Australia is also concerned that it will soon be within range of North Korean missiles and Canberra wants to forge a US-led alliance to combat that threat.
“The important thing is that the dangerous, reckless threatening conduct by North Korea comes to an end,” Mr Turnbull said before departing for New York. “Now that is going to require a concerted effort by the nations with the most leverage over North Korea and of course nobody has more leverage than China.”
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the fight against Isis in Iraq and Syria will also loom large on the agenda. Australia has 1,700 defence force personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and has only publicly committed to keeping them there until 2018. The US is likely to want Canberra to commit to supporting its efforts in training local defence forces in Iraq and fighting Isis into the future.
One area of common interest is an ambition to use spending on infrastructure such as roads, rail and bridges as a way to boost growth and create jobs in their domestic economies.
Steven Roth, co-chairman of Mr Trump’s infrastructure task force, recently said the US administration was looking “very carefully” at how Australia is financing its building programme through “infrastructure recycling”. Under this policy, Australia’s states are selling off publicly owned assets to the private sector and diverting the funds raised to spending on new infrastructure projects. The federal government provides a 15 per cent bonus to any state that participates in the programme.
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