Wall Street Journal
By Rob Taylor
February 2, 2017
CANBERRA, Australia—The potential unraveling of a refugee pact between the U.S. and Australia that President Donald Trump blasted as “dumb” threatens to strain ties between the longtime allies amid China’s push to extend its sway in the Pacific region.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been counting on the Obama-era deal to close off one of his government’s biggest flashpoints and resolve the fate of 1,250 refugees stranded in two Australian-backed camps in the Pacific, which for years have drawn criticism from rights groups and the United Nations over their conditions.
Instead Mr. Turnbull found himself clashing with Mr. Trump in a weekend phone call, according to people familiar with the talks.
In a Twitter post Thursday, Mr. Trump suggested he could back out of the deal, which was reached in November. “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” the post read.
Trump on Tough Phone Calls With Foreign Leaders: ‘Don’t Worry About It’
Later on Thursday he told an audience at the National Prayer Breakfast not to worry about “the tough phone calls,” adding: “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out.”
The Obama administration agreed to the refugee deal after Mr. Turnbull undertook to settle an unspecified number of refugees from U.S.-funded camps in Costa Rica, most of them victims of drug conflicts in El Salvador and Honduras. Both countries denied at the time that the two deals were linked.
Most of the 2,000 refugees Australia supports in Nauru and Papua New Guinea are from Iran, and others are from Iraq and Somalia, three of the seven countries named in a Trump executive order that temporarily bans immigration from those countries.
With his challenge to the pact, Mr. Trump could back Mr. Turnbull’s government into a corner and set back ties with Canberra, following efforts under the Obama administration to deepen the alliance, including closer military relations.
Australia has for decades been a staunch ally of Washington, sending combat troops, warships and aircraft to support U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Vietnam.
As tensions simmer over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, Australia has provided training bases for thousands of U.S. Marines and aircraft, while hosting sophisticated U.S. satellite spying and submarine communications facilities.
Australia shares U.S. concern about China’s construction and militarization of disputed atolls. The country has embarked on a 270 billion Australian dollar (US$203 billion) modernization of its armed forces and strengthened military ties with Singapore and Japan.
Those moves are relevant next to Mr. Trump’s argument that allies contribute more to maintain U.S. security commitments, in statements that have rattled other U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific.
The call prompted an outbreak of introspection in Australia on the strength of the country’s closest alliance, while sparking a storm of outrage on social media, where images of a bespectacled Koala being punched while offering a “G’day and Welcome” greeting circulated widely on Twitter. “Donald Thump,” said the headline of the mass-selling Daily Telegraph newspaper.
On Twitter, many people wondered how it was even possible to upset a country seen by many Americans as benign. Tourism from the U.S. to Australia has surged with a stronger greenback. “Someone please tell me how this man managed to upset Australia, of all places,” said one Twitter user, in a comment typical of many.
“You don’t treat a loyal treaty partner like this,” Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr told Australian television, saying Mr. Trump had shown “rude treatment of an Australian leader, unprecedented in the contact between Australian leadership and American leadership.”
While abandoning the refugee deal might not see security ties downgraded, it could draw Canberra nearer to Beijing in trade and economic spheres, especially when tied with Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade pact supported by Canberra, said Michael Clarke, an associate professor at Australia’s National Security College.
“It doesn’t really augur well on issues to do with trust and credibility of American guarantees,” Mr. Clarke said. “It could be the first chink in a deterioration in relations between Australia and the United States.”
Asked if there was a “Plan B” if Mr. Trump backed out, Mr. Turnbull said his government was still working on agreements with other unspecified nations, but Australia wouldn’t back down on its border-security laws, which bar asylum seekers arriving by boat from settling in the country.
“Our expectation naturally, given the commitments that have been made, is that it will go ahead,” he said. “The only option that isn’t available to [the refugees] is bringing them to Australia for the obvious reasons that that would provide a signal to the people smugglers to get back into business.”
Under laws first put in place in 2001, successive Australian governments have required asylum seekers coming by boat to be intercepted. The conservatives, on winning power in 2013, set up a maritime blockade that Mr. Turnbull has offered as a model for Europe.
But the system began to unravel after Papua New Guinea’s highest court last year ordered the closure of the Australian-operated immigration center on Manus Island, ruling asylum seekers were being held illegally. Soon after the United Nations documented serious problems on Nauru, including mental and sexual abuse.
The deal for resettlement in the U.S. was meant to be a solution that allowed Mr. Turnbull to uphold a promise to voters in elections this past July, which left his conservatives with a precarious majority.
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