PM should be ready for Trump ‘landmines’

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is playing down his infamous phone call with US President Donald Trump and is predicting “we’ll get on very well” when they meet face-to-face in New York.


A Washington DC-based expert in Australian and US affairs, however, says the prime minister will need to tread carefully in case the president delivers some of his trademark “rhetorical landmines”.

Mr Turnbull is scheduled to touch down in New York on Thursday AEST and will spend less than 48 hours in the city before jetting back to Canberra ahead of next week’s budget.

The prime minister will embark on a full day and evening of events on Friday, including the meeting with Mr Trump where rising tensions with North Korea are expected to be one of the top discussion points.

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The asylum-seeker deal which, according to the Washington Post, outraged Mr Trump during his January 28 phone call with Mr Turnbull might be a topic the leaders avoid.

Mr Trump described the deal, struck last year by Mr Turnbull and then president Barack Obama, as a “dumb deal” in a February Twitter post but has since reluctantly agreed to accept refugees held on Nauru and Manus Island if they pass what he describes as extreme vetting.

Mr Turnbull described the Washington Post story as “inaccurate in many respects”.

“The reports were pretty exaggerated,” Mr Turnbull said in an interview on Sunrise on Wednesday.

“It was a very frank, courteous and forthright call and I’m sure we’ll get on very well.”

The highlight of the trip will likely be a black tie event on the decommissioned USS Intrepid aircraft carrier on the Hudson River attended by Mr Turnbull, Mr Trump and veterans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the US-Australian Battle of the Coral Sea victory over Japan.

“It was a critical battle and a great example of the alliance and the first occasion Australian and American war ships operated together,” Mr Turnbull said.

Alan Tidwell, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies in Washington DC, described the January 28 phone call as a “hiccup” and said the Turnbull-Trump relationship was back on solid ground.

Dr Tidwell, however, did note Mr Trump could be unpredictable.

“They will focus on North Korea and China,” Dr Tidwell told AAP.

Watch: Turnbull ‘speaks his mind’ to SBS

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“The big test for Turnbull is balancing his support for American efforts to bring about a change of behaviour in North Korea, while at the same time not appearing to give in on Trump’s more outrageous positions, for example Trump’s recent invitation to Philippine president (Rodrigo) Duterte.

“Equally, Turnbull will have to be watchful for any of Trump’s rhetorical landmines.”

In recent days Mr Trump has shifted views on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and raised eyebrows when he suggested South Korea should pay $US1 billion for a US missile defence system.

Australia has a free trade agreement with the US, but Australian officials do not believe Mr Trump will attempt to re-work it as it favours the US with a significant trade surplus.

“On the trade side Turnbull will be hoping that Trump will continue to ignore the AUSFTA,” Dr Tidwell said.

“He doesn’t want Australia lumped in Trump’s trade tirade that’s targeted South Korea, Mexico and Canada.”

Mr Turnbull’s whirlwind New York trip will also include a meeting with Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, where North Korea and other Asia-Pacific security issues will be discussed.

The prime minister will also receive a briefing on the NYPD-FBI joint terrorism task force, hold an energy policy working lunch and a breakfast with chief executives of major companies.

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