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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Turnbull says US set to grant Australia tariff exemption

US allies have 15 days to negotiate exemptions to new levies on steel and aluminium imports

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, has urged major economies to refrain from retaliatory measures over US tariffs. Brendon Thorne / Bloomberg
Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, has urged major economies to refrain from retaliatory measures over US tariffs. Brendon Thorne / Bloomberg

The US appeared set to grant Australia an exemption from its new tariffs on steel and aluminium imports following discussions between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Trump this week exempted Canada and Mexico from the duties – 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminium – and said US allies would have 15 days to negotiate possible exemptions.

That triggered a diplomatic offensive from Australia, including a letter to Trump signed by business leaders and former Australian golfing great Greg Norman, a Trump supporter and friend.

After a telephone call with Turnbull on Friday, Trump tweeted: "Spoke to PM @TurnbullMalcolm of Australia. He is committed to having a very fair and reciprocal military and trade relationship."

"Working very quickly on a security agreement so we don't have to impose steel or aluminium tariffs on our ally, the great nation of Australia!"

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Turnbull went a step further, telling reporters in South Australia on Saturday that he was "very pleased the President was able to confirm that he would not have to impose tariffs on Australian steel and aluminium."

There appeared some doubt between the two countries over Trump's choice of words. While the Trump highlighted the nations' military and trade relationships, Turnbull moved to clarify Trump's comment about a new "security agreement," saying the president was referring to the legal paperwork that would lock the exemption into place.

Turnbull added Australia had "the closest possible military and security alliance with the United States and it gets closer all of the time."

Australia buys around 60 per cent of its military assets from the US, allows US marines to rotate through Darwin every year, and swaps intelligence as part of the "Five Eyes" alliance also including Britain, New Zealand and Canada.

"Our trade relationship, as the president acknowledges, is a fair and reciprocal one," Turnbull said. "It's a level playing field and, in fact, the US has a large trade surplus with Australia."

According to statistics from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the country's exports of steel to the US were worth $133.5 million in the 2016-2017 fiscal year and exports of aluminium to the US were worth $129.6m during that time.