The US has changed its mind on making Admiral Harry Harris its Australian ambassador.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he is disappointed Harry Harris will not be the next US ambassador to Australia, but understands why the experienced admiral is being redirected to South Korea.
Mr Turnbull has not spoken to US President Donald Trump 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,” he 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.”
Mr Turnbull praised the “fantastic job” being done by acting US ambassador Jim Caruso.
“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, the absence, if you like, of an ambassador is not really troubling the very strong relationship we have whatsoever,” Mr Turnbull said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed Admiral Harris would not be heading to Canberra after being notified by acting US Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Ms Bishop said Mr 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.
The full-time Canberra post has been vacant since September 2016, with Charge d’Affaires Mr Caruso acting in the role.
Former coalition deputy prime minister and diplomat Tim Fischer described one year without a US ambassador as an “accident” reflecting its low priority in Washington.
“Nigh on two years will be an insult with impact, notwithstanding the good work of the acting ambassador in Canberra,” he told AAP.
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said she recognised how important the South Korea post was to regional security given the risk presented by North Korea.
“It is disappointing that despite the close ties between our two countries, the post of US ambassador to Australia has now been left vacant for 19 months,” she said.
“We hope the government expresses to the United States the importance of this appointment being resolved soon.”
Dr Alan Tidwell, director of the Centre for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC, agreed it was disappointing.
“It does make one wonder about the meaning of ‘mateship’,” he told AAP.
However, he said it should not be taken personally, but rather reflected the nature of the Trump White House.
Two men speculated to be in line for the Seoul job – retired US Army General James Thurman and outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce – could now be in the mix for Canberra.
Australian Associated Press