Why Australian leader's White House visit really matters to Trump

Donald Trump may have got off to a rocky start with Australia when he became president last year, but his administrat...

Posted: Feb. 23, 2018 10:50 AM
Updated: Feb. 23, 2018 10:50 AM

Donald Trump may have got off to a rocky start with Australia when he became president last year, but his administration is determined to put it behind them this week when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visits the US.

Trump and Turnbull's first official interaction was a spiky phone call shortly after the President's inauguration, which the US leader described at the time as his "most unpleasant call all day."

However, Turnbull's visit has become a significant one for the United States -- as a multi-billion dollar investor and one of America's closet allies in a region they're rapidly losing to an increasingly assertive China, Australia is more important to the United States now than ever before.

"President Trump hasn't formed that many really close relationships with foreign heads of government ... in fact, he's alienated a number of them," Michael Fullilove, executive director at Sydney's Lowy Institute told CNN.

"For (the White House, this visit's) about showing that they've put that phone call behind them entirely ... and they've struck up a good relationship with the leader of a very reliable US ally."

In the past week, the Trump administration announced the high-profile nomination of Adm. Harry Harris, head of US forces in the Asia Pacific region and a renowned Beijing hawk, as the next US ambassador to Australia.

"US and Australia pulling together and the US really appreciating Australia's role in the region will be the story of this visit," Jared Mondschein, Research Fellow at Sydney's United States Studies Center told CNN.

Turnbull, Trump 'share a common language'

Coming amid continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a furious debate in Australia around Chinese interference in the country's politics, all eyes will be on any potential security announcements between the two allies.

In Australia, local media is reporting the possibility of a surge in US troop numbers in Darwin being announced during the trip. Thousands of marines have been posted to the northern Australian city since 2011, as part of former US President Obama's pivot to Asia.

But before he left for Washington, Turnbull made it clear he was not going to treat Australia's largest trading partner China as a military threat.

"China's rise has been of enormous value to the region, there's hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty. We don't see the region through what is frankly an out-of-date Cold War prism," he told CNN-affiliate Sky News.

"Neither, by the way, does Donald Trump."

Despite their shaky start and the processing of the US-Australia refugee deal which Trump loudly denounced, Australian officials said the two leaders now have a firm bond.

Australian ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey told CNN both leaders had put their first, tense phone call behind them.

"The Prime Minister and the President actually are quite close and they respect each other," he said.

"They share a common language in terms of transactional business language. Also they understand that much bigger than any minor difference they might have, the relationship is very good and they have spoken many times together since and I think they really enjoy each other's company."

Trump and Turnbull actually do have much in common. The Australian leader was a lawyer and wealthy investment banker before entering politics and speaks the language of international business like Trump.

Deals likely to be announced

Turnbull is leading an enormous delegation of Australian business leaders and politicians, keen to discuss future investment between the two countries, while the Australian leader himself has meetings scheduled to visit the Pentagon for discussions with high-level US military figures.

The trip will culminate in a conversation with Trump in the Oval Office on Friday, Turnbull's first White House visit during the Trump administration.

At Trump and Turnbull's last meeting in the US in May 2017, Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt publicly announced he would be investing $2 billion to create jobs in the US.

Given the size of the business delegation accompanying the Australian leader to the US in February, more deals are likely to be revealed during this trip, Mondschein said.

"We'll have another similar announceable where the US and Trump can tout some of the wins from this relationship," he said.

Aside from Australia and the US's highly publicized security ties, Australian investment in America totaled almost $500 billion in 2016 according to the United States Study Center.

"Australia and in particular Trump want to focus on the economic component of the relationship -- US being the largest investor in Australia and the US the largest recipient of Australia investment," Mondschein said.

There has also been suggestions Turnbull and Trump may discuss a large infrastructure investment scheme in the Asia region, or encourage the US leader to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

Turnbull played down any suggestion their opposing program, planned in conjunction with Japan and other countries, was a "rival" to China's ambitious regional plans.

"We need trillions and trillions of dollars of additional infrastructure investment in the (Asia) region. We want to make sure, do everything we can to ensure that that infrastructure investment has the greatest economic benefit for the countries where it's invested and of course, that you get the widest pool of investors," he told CNN-affiliate Sky News.

But aside from the economic ties between the US and Australia, Turnbull said there would also be discussions between the two leaders on security matters, such as the North Korea crisis.

"We'll be spending a lot of time talking about that and our determination as part of the global community ... to bring the regime to its senses," he said.

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