Australia feeling like a ‘second-class ally’ after US redirects ambassador to South Korea instead

The vacancy in Seoul is seen as urgent given the high-stakes negotiations between the North’s leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 9:32pm

The Trump administration has decided to redirect its pick for ambassador to Australia, Admiral Harry Harris, to instead represent the United States in South Korea.

Experts say the surprise move sends a “terrible” message to Australia, which has been waiting almost a year for a new US ambassador, but the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, has played down suggestions it amounts to a slight against Australia.

Harris, the head of the US Pacific command, was due to attend a nomination hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but it was unexpectedly postponed.

A senior White House official told The Washington Post that the administration now plans to renominate Harris as US envoy to South Korea and Harris reportedly intends to accept.

During his own confirmation hearing to become secretary of state, the former CIA director Mike Pompeo had promised to fill the role of US ambassador to South Korea quickly.

The South Korea vacancy is seen as urgent given the high-stakes negotiations with North Korea, which will include Donald Trump personally meeting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Pompeo met Kim Jong-un over Easter to prepare for the historic summit in coming weeks.

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Andrew Shearer, a senior policy adviser for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the ABC’s AM programme it would be “hard to escape a bit of a sense that Australia is being treated here as a second-class ally”.

“I think that’s regrettable,” he said. “Australia really though is, if you like, a collateral casualty to the shambolic personnel practices of the Trump administration.

“I don’t think there’s anything sinister to it – I think it’s much more typical of the ad hoc moment-to-moment decision-making of this administration.”

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Thomas Wright, told Fairfax Media the backflip sent a “terrible” and “unfortunate” message because it suggested Australia “is not a priority”.

“They need to make sure they appoint someone of similar stature and ability to Harris now, not just a donor or a friend of Donald Trump’s,” he is quoted as saying.

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On Wednesday Bishop responded that the Australian government understands Harris “will be required in another post … but we look forward to a new ambassador being nominated as soon as possible”.

Bishop said Australia understands the challenges on the Korean peninsula, adding that it was warned of the plan to redirect Harris in a bid to defuse suggestions the move had caused tensions with the US.

A congressional aide told The Washington Post that the ambassador positions in Canberra and Seoul were both “critical posts”.

“And while Admiral Harris would be a capable, talented and effective nominee for either post, the process by which the administration has handled the nominations for our ambassadors to Korea and now Australia … risks doing grave damage to vital alliance relationships and US posture and standing throughout the region.”

When the Trump administration nominated Harris as Australian ambassador in February it was warmly welcomed by the Turnbull government.