Malcolm Turnbull and the United States’ stand-in for ambassador to Australia have both said they are “disappointed” that admiral Harry Harris will not be coming to take the role permanently.
Turnbull and the US charge d’affaires, James Carouso, have both sought to downplay claims that the Trump administration’s decision to redirect Harris to represent the US in South Korea amounts to treating Australia like a second-class ally.
On Thursday Carouso told ABC News Breakfast it was a “top priority” to bring a US ambassador to Australia but conceded that “we are all disappointed” Harris, the head of the US Pacific command, will not fill the role.
He asked Australians to look at the “bigger picture” in Korea, citing upcoming talks between Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to argue that the US needs an ambassador on the ground in South Korea.
Carouso said the US was sending Harris “because of the urgency of the situation in Korea” and applied a positive spin by claiming it “reflects the fact that the United States and Australia have worked together to apply pressure on Korea that has brought us to this point”.
Carouso said Australia’s relationship with the US was “incredibly broad and tight”, citing the fact that ministers can contact their US counterparts and more than 700 Australian officials had visited Washington and vice versa in the last year.
“Australia should have an ambassador here, there is no doubt ... I don’t know the exact situation but I have been told this is the top priority to get the next person out here as quickly as possible,” he said.
Turnbull has not spoken to the US president since learning of the decision earlier this week but insists he is unperturbed.
“I’m disappointed that Harry’s not coming because he’s a really good friend, and I think Harry will be disappointed that he’s not coming to Canberra too because he loves Australia,” Turnbull told reporters in France.
“He is a guy of enormous experience and ability and, given the situation on the Korean peninsula, given the tensions there, I can well understand why the president has decided that the admiral’s expertise and experience is going to be able to be put to better use in Korea than in Australia.”
Turnbull praised the “fantastic job” being done by Carouso. The full-time Canberra post has been vacant since September 2016.
“The relationship between Australia and the United States, as you all know as well as I do, that is so deep and so intense and operates at so many levels,” Turnbull said. “The absence, if you like, of an ambassador is not really troubling the very strong relationship we have whatsoever.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, confirmed Harris would not be heading to Canberra after being notified by the acting US secretary of state, John Sullivan.
Bishop said Sullivan made it clear a new appointment to Canberra would be a priority for the next secretary of state.
“Based on the assumption he is confirmed by the Senate this week, I hope to have a conversation with Mike Pompeo as soon as possible,” she said.
Andrew Shearer, a senior policy adviser for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has said it is “hard to escape a bit of a sense that Australia is being treated here as a second-class ally”.
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”.