Boris Johnson lends support to Australia-UK free trade deal

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SYDNEY (AP) — British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Thursday that he supports a proposed free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and Australia, as his country looks to strengthen its relationships with allies ahead of its departure from the European Union.

Johnson and his Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, announced the two nations would boost trade, intelligence-sharing and military ties following an annual meeting in Sydney that included the defense ministers of both countries.

"As we go through the process of leaving the arrangements of the European Union, we are going to widen our horizons and work even more closely," Johnson told reporters. "We have today reaffirmed our shared goal of concluding a free trade agreement as soon as possible after we leave the EU."

Johnson, who had advocated for Britain's EU departure, said any deal would include an "open and generous" visa regime for Australians looking to travel to the U.K.

"What we will be able to do once we take back control of our immigration arrangements is to have a system that is fair," he said. "We want to welcome talented Australians."

The ministers were short on specifics over what impact a trade deal would have, though Johnson did have an answer for a British journalist who asked whether it would result in cheaper Australian wine for Britons.

"Never mind Australian wine, which is, of course, delicious," Johnson said. "There are tariffs on Scotch whisky in this country which seem to me to amount to a cruel deprivation of the Australian people of Scotch whisky at the price they could have it. I merely throw it out there. Whereas I don't think we have any tariffs at all on, for instance, Bundaberg Rum."

Thursday's ministerial meeting also focused on counterterrorism efforts and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Both British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and Australian Defense Minister Maris Payne urged China to use its influence over North Korea to help de-escalate the crisis.

"China has to engage," Fallon said. "With international influence comes responsibility. It is now for Beijing to use the influence it has over the North Korean regime to get it to abandon its program."

In a lighter moment, the famously jovial Johnson made a point to thank Bishop — an avid runner — for giving him a gift intended to help his own jogging regimen.

"Somebody brought you news I had been out jogging over the last couple of mornings in your wonderful Botanic Gardens in Sydney and you were kind enough just now to give me a very beautiful pair of compression tights — as worn by Hugh Jackman, I'm given to understand," Johnson said. "So thank you, Julie."

In an appearance later at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, Johnson was asked for his thoughts on U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Johnson once dubbed "clearly out of his mind." The foreign secretary replied that Trump was actually "extremely gracious" when the two met.

"He said, rather mystifyingly, how often he was mistaken for me ... which I thought was a low blow," Johnson said, prompting laughter from the crowd.

Asked about Trump's apparent affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Johnson said it was "fitting and right" for the president to have a relationship with the Russian leader.

"We've got to engage with Russia, as well as being vigilant and as well as deterring them," Johnson said. "You need a policy of 'beware but engage.'"

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