Trump, Turnbull set to mend strained ties at US meeting

US President Donald Trump (left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are meeting in New York.
US President Donald Trump (left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are meeting in New York.PHOTOS: EPA, REUTERS

Both leaders expected to focus on North Korea in first face-to-face meeting after testy call in January

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was due to meet Mr Donald Trump in New York yesterday in a much-anticipated encounter following their infamous first phone conversation - when the US President reportedly hung up on him.

As Mr Turnbull arrived in New York for his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Trump, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was quick to point out that the two leaders "don't have to be best friends".

"Of course they will be gracious towards each other," she told ABC Radio. "I have no doubt that the Prime Minister and President Trump will find a lot in common. I'm sure they'll get along well."

Analysts said the meeting between the leaders of the two allies is expected to focus on North Korea's missile tests and Australia's push for Mr Trump to attend a special Asean-Australia summit in Sydney in March next year.

A research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Mr Brendan Thomas, told The Straits Times that Mr Turnbull would be keen to use the meeting to "keep the US looking at Asia".

But there is likely to be as much focus on the theatrics as the content, with both leaders seeking to demonstrate that the fiery exchange during a phone call following Mr Trump's inauguration in January has been forgotten.

Mr Trump apparently ended the call early over his anger at a deal between former president Barack Obama and Canberra in which the US agreed to accept about 1,250 refugees held at Australian-run offshore detention centres. Mr Trump reportedly described the conversation as the "worst call by far", though Vice-President Mike Pence assured Canberra that the US would honour the deal.

Unusually, the leaders will meet aboard a decommissioned World War II aircraft carrier as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The four-day battle in May 1942 resulted in the US and Australian forces staving off Japanese advances in the South Pacific, and has been seen as a turning point in the war.

Analysts said the dramatic backdrop was unusual and perhaps regrettable because it focused on the past rather than the future of the relationship. Australia has committed troops to every major war fought by the US since World War II, but there has been growing debate about whether Canberra should forge a more independent stance.

The meeting has also attracted a high degree of attention in the US, as it marks Mr Trump's first visit to New York since he moved to the White House in January.

Before flying to the US, Mr Turnbull claimed the infamous phone call had been "frank and courteous" and he was not concerned about his ability to develop a strong working relationship with Mr Trump.

"I think the reports of that telephone conversation are greatly exaggerated and indeed inaccurate," he told SBS Television. "The alliance between Australia and the United States is so fundamental and so enduring it transcends particular presidents and prime ministers."

Mr Thomas said Mr Turnbull, a former investment banker and self-made multi-millionaire, would likely try to build a rapport with Mr Trump by emphasising their shared business backgrounds.

But he noted that Mr Trump's personality remained highly unpredictable and there was "no guarantee" that the meeting would succeed in improving the relationship.

"It is important to build on things that Trump likes - such as playing on his past as a businessman," he said. "But it is still no guarantee. There is a narrative that Trump is learning and changing... I am not so sure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2017, with the headline 'Trump, Turnbull set to mend strained ties at US meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe