News National ‘The stakes are high’: How Malcolm Turnbull needs to handle Trump

‘The stakes are high’: How Malcolm Turnbull needs to handle Trump

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Malcolm Turnbull's meeting with Donald Trump is expected to be an emotional one. Photo: AAP
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Months after word of a terse phone call between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump hit the headlines, the PM will head to New York next week, carrying with him the hope he can salvage their relationship.

And ahead of the meeting on Thursday, experts – including three former Prime Ministers – have not been shy in offering their advice.

“The stakes are high,” Professor Nick Bisley, an international relations expert at La Trobe University, told The New Daily. “It’s very hard to imagine many other circumstances in which a PM would disappear just before the budget.”

The two will come face to face in New York on the USS Intrepid, a World War II aircraft carrier that now serves as a museum on the West Side of Manhattan, as both nations urge China to rein in an increasingly volatile North Korea.

The meeting will commemorate the 75th Battle of the Coral Sea, in which US and Australian forces pushed back Japanese imperialism during World War II.

According to University of Sydney professor James Curran, that war imagery will “showcase everything about the alliance that Australia wants Trump to know”.

“They want him to know about the longevity of the defence relationship,” Professor Curran told The New Daily. “There are going to be photographs of Trump and Turnbull beneath the old guns of this warship.

“It will send the message that this relationship is back on track.”

Donald Trump phone call
Malcolm Turnbull will meet President Donald Trump for the first time after their testy January phone call. Photo: AP

Yet Professor Curran is not alone in suggesting this meeting, and the imagery that will accompany it, carries risks for Mr Turnbull, too.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who last year urged Australia to “cut the tag” with Washington, intervened not once, but three times this week.

Ahead of an appearance in Melbourne on Friday, Mr Keating said it was a “piece of nonsense” to suggest that if Australia had a more independent foreign policy the US would “dump us”.

“A sensible country says, ‘We have an old friend in the United States … but we have a newer but powerful friend in China’,” Mr Keating told ABC Radio. “And we need a foreign policy that pays regard to their respective interests, but doesn’t subjugate Australia’s interests to … the United States.”

In separate radio appearances, Former Labor PM Kevin Rudd said the two leaders should discuss the role of South Korea in dealing with Kim Jong-un, while Tony Abbott suggested offering the Americans additional assistance fighting ISIS.

Mr Turnbull said on Friday that he hoped to discuss North Korea, the Middle East and the global economy with the President next week.

‘Talk about family’

But Professor Bisley said the Prime Minister would do well to first focus on building a personal relationship with Mr Trump, even if that means eschewing policy talk.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has been one of the few leaders to form a close bond with Mr Trump, engaging in ‘golf diplomacy’ with the President and even gifting him a golden driver.

“It’s crucial that Turnbull builds a rapport with Trump,” Professor Bisley said. “Clearly the way to do it is build that personal connection. Talk about family, talk about the grandkids and then go from there.”

“In hindsight it’s easy to say, but the mistake Turnbull made [in the phone call] was to talk policy.”

Still, given the nature of next week’s event –  a commemorative service and a bilateral meeting – connecting personally may be difficult, Professor Curran argues.

“I do think this is a step down in protocol,” the Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow said. “It’s not the White House. It’s not Mar-A-Lago in Florida. Mind you, only Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe have been given the prestige of a Florida meeting.”

But the meeting would still calm any nerves within the Turnbull government, Professor Curran said.

“It was starting to become a little bit of a niggle. He needed to show that after that tumultuous phone call in January, the Australian government still had access at the highest levels.”

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