The Washington Post
June 5 at 3:34 AM
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed growing concerns about American isolationism during a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Sydney on June 5. Tillerson stressed that the United States and Australia will remain closely aligned on many issues, despite President Trump withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and then the Paris climate agreement. (The Washington Post)

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.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, pose with Governor of New South Wales, David Hurley, center, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, second right, and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne at Government House in Sydney before the 2017 Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) Monday, June 5, 2017. The annual meeting brings together the Australian ministers for foreign affairs and for defense with the U.S. secretaries of State and defense, along with senior officials from both portfolios. (Mark Metcalfe/Pool Photo via AP)

“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 that Australia always is “punching above its weight” in protecting values, and indicated that 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.

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 that “fresh approaches will be taken” following the U.S. election, but that 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.”


SYDNEY, Australia — In their first joint appearance abroad, America’s top diplomat and its Pentagon chief offered public reassurances to a longstanding ally at odds with President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate agreement.

With Defence Secretary Jim Mattis at his side, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a news conference Monday that Trump is interested in “perhaps a new construct of an agreement,” signalling that Trump believes the climate change issue “is still important and that he wants to stay engaged on the issue.”

“He’s not walking away from it,” Tillerson said. “He’s simply walking away from what he felt was an agreement that did not serve the American people well.”

Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, deflected any suggestion of a loss of confidence in U.S. leadership, saying, “We have a similar world view, we have shared values and shared interests” in other areas.

Tillerson also took a swipe at China, criticizing what he called its militarization of disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea and suggesting that Beijing has failed to persuade North Korea to ends it nuclear weapons program.

“China is a significant economic and trading power, and we desire a productive relationship,” he said. “But we cannot allow China to use its economic power to buy its way out of other problems, whether it’s militarizing islands in the South China Sea or failure to put appropriate pressure on North Korea. They must recognize that with a role as a growing economic and trading power come security responsibilities as well.”

A reporter asked Tillerson to reconcile the administration’s emphasis on strengthening alliances in Asia and elsewhere with what some perceive as isolationism in Trump’s rejection of multilateral trade agreements, criticisms of NATO and abandonment of the Paris climate deal.

“That’s why we’re here,” Tillerson said. “That’s why we travelled here. That’s why we engaged with our counterparts,” adding, “So I hope the fact that we’re here, demonstrates that it certainly is not this administration’s view or intention to somehow put at arm’s length the important partners and allies in the world.”

Mattis called Australia “a beacon of hope for people and the world.”

Even as the U.S. and Australian officials were meeting behind closed doors, news broke of a growing political rift among key American allies in the Persian Gulf.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all announced they would withdraw their diplomatic staff from Qatar over that country’s support for Islamist groups and its relations with Iran. Qatar is home to a U.S. military base that is central to the co-ordination of its air campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of irritants in the region that have been there for some time, and obviously they have now bubbled up to level that countries decided they needed to take action in an effort to have those differences addressed,” Tillerson said, noting that he had just heard news of this development. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences.”

Tillerson said he did not believe this would have any impact on the fight against Islamic extremism.

Mattis was even more emphatic on the point.

“I am confident there will be no implications coming out of this diplomatic situation at all,” Mattis said.

In earlier remarks at the start of their talks, Mattis pledged unity with longtime ally Australia in fighting Islamic extremists who seek to intimidate the West.

“We are united, as I said, in our resolve, even against an enemy that thinks by hurting us they can scare us,” Mattis said. “Well, we don’t scare.”

The meeting, held annually, touched on a range of subjects including defeating the Islamic State, stabilizing Afghanistan and dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threats.

Tillerson stressed the enduring U.S.-Australian alliance and said it will prevail in “this common fight we share against the most heinous of actions we’ve seen most recently in London yet again.” He did not elaborate on the London attack.

Police say three men drove a van over London Bridge on Saturday and struck pedestrians before crashing the vehicle outside a pub. The attackers, wielding blades and knives, ran to a well-known fruit and vegetable market and there they stabbed people in several different restaurants. Seven people were killed and at least 48 were hospitalized. Police fired 50 bullets to stop the violence, killing the three attackers and wounding one member of the public.

In her opening remarks, Bishop said “countering terrorism” would be high on the meeting’s agenda.

“The global terrorist threat is ever evolving, we’ve seen brutal attacks in a number of European cities, we’ve thwarted attacks here in Australia, and so we want to discuss with you, the links back into the Middle East, the role we’re playing with you in Iraq and Syria and also Afghanistan,” Bishop said. “We are united in our resolve to defeat ISIS, the Islamic State terrorist organization and its ilk.”