The US is going to honour a controversial refugee exchange deal with Australia, despite Donald Trump’s claims that it is “dumb”.
Vice-president Mike Pence has said the agreement to resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers, which was made by the Obama administration, is being fulfilled “out of respect to the extremely important alliance” between the US and Australia.
But during a news conference in Sydney alongside Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Pence said honouring the agreement “doesn’t mean that we admire it”.
The vice-president’s trip, which is part of a 10-day tour of Asia-Pacific, is widely seen as an effort to smooth over relations with Australia.
Shortly after he was inaugurated, President Trump had a phone disagreement with Mr Turnbull about the exchange of refugees – and he cut the conversation short after reportedly telling him it was his “worst call by far” with a foreign leader that day.
Australia has been under pressure to close the offshore refugee camps
Under the deal, asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on South Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru will be resettled in the US, with Australia taking in refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in return.
The White House has already stressed that any refugees coming to America will be subject to “extreme vetting” before they are given asylum.
Commencing the deal has become more urgent for Australia, which has faced growing legal and political pressure to close the camps following cases of violence between refugees and island residents.
Given President Trump’s unpopularity with many Australians, Mr Turnbull has been urged by some to distance the country’s relationship with the US in favour of stronger ties with China.
The Prime Minister has resisted those calls, and although China is Australia’s most important trading partner, America remains its closest ally on security matters.
Given the fact that Australia is one of the largest contributors to the US-led military campaigns in Iraq and Syria, Mr Pence was also keen to stress the “historic alliance” between the two countries.
As the vice-president gave a joint news conference alongside Mr Turnbull on the shores of Sydney Harbour, he said: “It’s always heartening to stand beside a friend, and I do so today.”
Tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions were also discussed by the pair during their meeting, with both agreeing that China should use its leverage with Pyongyang to peacefully de-escalate the threats posed by Kim Jong-Un’s missile programme.
Mr Pence’s tour is set to become more leisurely on Sunday with a tour of Sydney’s Opera House, a boat ride along the harbour and a trip to a local zoo on the itinerary.