By Jane Wardell and Roberta Rampton
SYDNEY (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to discuss trade and regional security when he meets Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday, Australian and U.S. officials said.
Pence landed in Australia late on Friday, his fourth stop on a 10-day tour of U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region that has included a series of roundtables with business executives in South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.
His trip to Australia is the first by a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration as the United States looks to strengthen economic ties and security cooperation amid disputes in the South China Sea and tension on the Korean peninsula.
Pence will emphasize the long-term partnership between the two countries on defense and the economy, even as Australia eyes the merits of developing a closer relationship with China, a White House foreign policy adviser said.
“We’re the number two in the economy in this sense,” the adviser told reporters traveling with Pence. “Obviously they lead with China. They are in the region, proximity matters to them.”
An official in Turnbull’s office noted Pence has already met and spoken by phone with several ministers about the Trump administration’s commitment to the bilateral relationship.
“The prime minister will enjoy the chance to talk about opportunities for building on that partnership,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Australia’s relationship with the new administration in Washington got off to a rocky start when Trump lambasted Turnbull over a refugee resettlement arrangement that Trump labeled a “dumb” deal.
Details of an acrimonious phone call between the pair soon after Trump took office made headlines around the world.
It is unclear whether that deal, agreed with former President Barack Obama, will be discussed on Saturday.
“I really do think it’s ancient history,” the White House foreign policy adviser told reporters, noting Pence had discussed the deal with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop earlier this year.
Under the deal, the United States agreed to resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on South Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
In return, Australia would resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The deal has taken on added importance for Australia, which is under political and legal pressure to shut the camps, particularly one on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island where violence between residents and inmates has flared.
Pence will also meet Australian business executives in Sydney on Saturday, following similar meetings in Seoul, Tokyo, and Jakarta that have been thick with executives from Fortune 100 companies.
His message at each of those stops was to reassure political and business leaders that Trump’s “America First” policy meant that the United States was open to foreign investment, and that his administration wanted to work with business leaders to knock down barriers for U.S. products.
He has also confirmed that Trump will attend this year’s gathering of the Association of South East Asian Nations, scheduled for the Philippines in November.
While in Australia, Pence and his family will also meet some local wildlife at Sydney’s zoo, take a harbor cruise and tour the world-famous Sydney Opera House.
(Reporting By Jane Wardell and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)