SYDNEY — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met here Monday with senior Australian officials, stressing that despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from key environmental and trade agreements, the relationship between their countries will remain strong.
Tillerson, asked what he will do to address “pockets of doubt” about American isolationism under President Trump, said “that’s why we’re here.” Despite Trump withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and then the Paris climate agreement last week, the two countries will remain closely aligned on many issues, Tillerson said.
“In terms of addressing those concerns, this is how we address them: to travel to the region to meet with our counterparts and to talk about all the issues that are important to them, and to hear concerns they have about the administration and its position, relative to whether it be security issues, or economic and trade issues,” he said.
Mattis, citing Australia’s early assistance to the United States in the war in Afghanistan, said Australia always is “punching above its weight” in protecting values and indicated Australia is not shy about expressing its point of view.
“This is an alliance that tells us what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear,” he said.
Mattis and Tillerson appeared together at a news conference for the first time, standing with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne amid the Gothic architecture of Sydney’s Government House, an iconic building down under. They were to meet afterward for dinner with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before Mattis returned to Washington and Tillerson moved on to visit officials in New Zealand.
Tillerson, addressing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, put distance between himself and the president on the issue. But he also stressed that Trump is still willing to discuss new deals on trade and the climate that he believes are more beneficial to the American public.
“I think the president’s decision to leave the climate accord was his judgment that the agreement did not serve the American people well and that it did not serve their future economic interests, either,” he said.
Bishop said that she “should point out” that Australia has its own views on its priorities and interests, and “as it happens, they align so often with those of the United States.”
“We have shared values, shared interests,” she said. “But Australia always takes our own interests into account.”
Trump got off to a rocky start with Australia, with the president abruptly ending a testy phone call with Turnbull within days of taking office, U.S. officials said. The president was frustrated about a deal that former president Barack Obama made with Australia to take about 1,200 refugees after security vetting.
But Turnbull and Trump met in New York in May, reaffirming their relationship and the refugee agreement while saying that reports about the phone call were exaggerated.
On Friday, Turnbull appeared at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a defense conference in Singapore, and said that while Trump’s decision to withdraw from the TPP trade deal and the Paris agreement were “disappointing,” other Pacific nations should “take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all.”
Mattis, meanwhile, sought to reassure allies in the Pacific about Trump’s decisions in Singapore. Asked about Trump’s withdrawal from TPP and the Paris agreement and his brusque stance toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Mattis said “fresh approaches will be taken” following the U.S. election, but the United States will continue to be a world leader.
Mattis cited American lessons learned following isolationism before World War II and cited a quote often attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“To quote a British observer of us from some years ago: Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing” Mattis said. “So, we will still be there. And we will be with you.”