Thu, Mar 14, 2019 - Page 1 News List

New US ambassador to Australia decries China

The Guardian

US Ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse gives his first news conference in Australia yesterday at the US embassy in Canberra.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Navigating China’s ever expanding influence, while decoding US President Donald Trump for a somewhat bemused and cynical audience, could be considered a big ask for a self-described “farm boy from Tennessee.”

However, Arthur Culvahouse, the new US ambassador to Australia, has hit the ground running, strengthening the US’ line against China’s soft diplomacy in the Pacific and declaring that the sheriff is back in town.

US Vice President Mike Pence has described Beijing’s loans to Pacific nations as “debt trap diplomacy.” Culvahouse, fresh from conversations on that topic with White House advisers, went further.

“I would use stronger language. I would use ‘payday loan diplomacy,’” he said in his first news conference in Australia, moments after presenting his credentials to the governor general.

“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,” Culvahouse said.

“I think we have already have done a good job,” he added.

It is the line that he has been sent to deliver and the most candid that 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 former US senator Howard Baker, supporting the senator’s work on the committee looking into Watergate.

A career in law — including serving as counsel to former US president Ronald Reagan, a stint on the US Federal Advisory on Nuclear Failsafe and Risk Reduction and winning public service medals from both Reagan and former US vice president Dick Cheney for his efforts — has seemingly taught Culvahouse to think before he speaks.

It has been more than two years since the US has had a permanent ambassador to Australia, a fact that the US Department of State and Culvahouse were aware of, choosing to expedite his arrival following the announcement of his appointment in December last year.

US 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 the US-China trade spat and China’s aggression in the South China Sea have meant that his permanent appointment was greeted with a diplomatic sigh of relief.

The message is that the US is back in town.

“We are a Pacific nation too,” Culvahouse said.

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