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Navigating China’s ever expanding influence, while decoding Donald Trump for a somewhat bemused and cynical audience, could be considered a big ask for a self-described “farm boy from Tennessee”.
But Arthur Culvahouse, the USA’s new ambassador to Australia, has hit the ground running, strengthening the United States’ line against China’s soft diplomacy in the Pacific. The sheriff is back in town.
The US vice-president, Mike Pence, for whom Culvahouse carried out the vetting, described China’s loans to Pacific nations as “debt trap diplomacy”. Culvahouse, fresh from conversations on that exact topic with White House advisers, went further.
“I would use stronger language, I would use pay day loan diplomacy,” he said, in his first press conference in Australia, moments after presenting his credentials to the governor general.
“But I think it is on us, all of the allies and the western and liberal democracies to educate people about the dangers of these loans – the fact that the money looks attractive and easy upfront but you better read the fine print.
“I think we have already have done a good job, with Australians and the United States and others in educating targets of [those dangers].”
It is the line he has been sent here to deliver, and the most candid he was prepared to get.
Culvahouse might refer to himself as that long ago “farm boy” but he first came to Washington’s notice as a staffer for Howard Baker, supporting the Tennessee senator’s work on the committee looking into Watergate.
A career in law, including serving as counsel to Ronald Reagan, advising on the Iran-Contra investigations among others, as well as a stint on the Federal Advisory on Nuclear Failsafe and Risk Reduction, winning public service medals from both Reagan and Dick Cheney for his efforts, has seemingly taught Culvahouse to think before he speaks.
Emerging from Her Majesty’s Rolls-Royce, loaned to him for the short trip between Government House and the US embassy, Culvahouse gave a smile and an awkward thumbs up, answering a “g’day” by sounding out one of his own.
It has been more than two years since the US has had a permanent ambassador to Australia, a fact the state department and Culvahouse were aware of, choosing to expedite his arrival following the announcement of his appointment in December last year.
He skipped “ambassador school”, he admitted. But he didn’t arrive blind. Trump asked him to consider the role last year. Before he accepted, he travelled to Canberra in September, somewhat undercover.
“I’d never visited your capital,” he said. “I thought it was important to do so, before making my decision. It was arranged for me to lay a wreath at your war memorial in my capacity as a former Reagan administration official.
“After participating in that ceremony, after touring your war museum, having guides talk about the relationship and the alliance of our countries since world war I, as I exited the the war memorial, looking out at Parliament House, over Lake Burley Campbell [sic], I then and there decided that I would go forward.
“I then and there decided that being the 26th United States ambassador to Australia would be the capstone to my career. I have never regretted that decision.”
But there is some mending to be done.
Embassy staff and charge d’affaires James Carouso have held the line, keeping communication between Australia and one of its most important allies open.
But Trump’s tweet diplomacy, growing tension over a burgeoning trade war between China and the US, and China’s continuing aggression in the South China Sea, as well as the delay in replacing John Berry, meant Culvahouse’s permanent appointment was greeted with a diplomatic sigh of relief.
Translating Trump to an antipodean audience, still somewhat bemused to waking up to streams of consciousness from the tweeter-in-chief, will require strong relationships to be forged, and fast.
It took Barack Obama almost three years to visit Australia following his election but Australia has not been visited by a US president since November 2014. Culvahouse made sure not to set expectations too high on when that might change.
“The president has a busy schedule,” he said. “In talking to the White House before I left, that is still an option that is being considered.”
While he said senior administration officials were expected to visit Australia this year, the president’s “schedule is still being negotiated”, he said.
But in the meantime, the message is the United States is back in town.
“We are a Pacific nation too,” he said.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS
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