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story.lead_photo.caption Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discusses his phone call Thursday with former Vice President Joe Biden during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Morrison said he invited Biden to visit next year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the two countries’ shared defense treaty. (AP/AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

More world leaders recognized Joe Biden as the U.S.' presumptive president-elect Thursday, congratulating him in phone calls and pledging to cooperate on such matters as the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

In his conversations with Asian allies, Biden sought to allay uncertainties about a less-engaged Washington.

The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Biden during a 14-minute call reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea and said he would closely coordinate with Seoul in a push to defuse a nuclear standoff with North Korea.

Biden's office said he expressed his desire to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a "linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region." Biden also praised Moon for South Korea's gains in its anti-virus campaign, and discussed cooperation over a global economic recovery and the countries' "mutual interest in strengthening democracy," his office said.

Kang Min-seok, Moon's spokesman, said the leaders also agreed to meet "possibly soon" after Biden's planned inauguration on Jan. 20.

Moon, who has ambitions for inter-Korean engagement, helped set up President Donald Trump's leader-to-leader nuclear diplomacy with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, which has now stalled over disagreements in exchanging a release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions against the North and the North's disarmament steps.

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In an opinion piece to South Korea's Yonhap News ahead of the election, Biden vowed to strengthen the alliance, rather than "extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he invited Biden to Australia next year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the countries' shared defense treaty. Morrison said he and Biden during their call made clear their commitment to strengthening the bilateral alliance.

"We agreed that there was no more critical time for both this alliance between ourselves and the United States, but, more broadly, the working together, especially of like-minded countries and values that we hold and share, working together to promote peace, and stability of course in the Indo-Pacific region," Morrison told reporters.

Biden said he looked forward to working closely with Morrison "on many common challenges, including containing the covid-19 pandemic and guarding against future global health threats; confronting climate change; laying the groundwork for the global economic recovery; strengthening democracy; and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region," according to his office.

Australia is taking part in large-scale military exercises with the United States, Japan and India this month for the first time since 2007.

Australia withdrew from the annual Exercise Malabar after the 2007 naval drills over concerns about relations with China. But relations between Australia and its biggest trading partner have since deteriorated, with Beijing refusing to take calls from Australian government ministers.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he and Biden during their call reaffirmed the importance of their countries' alliances and agreed to further deepen it in face of China's growing influence and North Korea's nuclear threat.

"We had a very meaningful telephone conversation as I will work with President-elect Biden to push forward measures to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance," Suga told reporters after speaking with Biden on the phone for about 15 minutes.

Biden's office said the two "spoke about their shared commitment to tackle climate change, strengthen democracy around the world, and reinforce the U.S.-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of a prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region."

Suga said he told Biden that Japan wants to pursue the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," a vision it has been promoting with the United States to include "like-minded" countries in the region, including Australia, India and Southeast Asian countries that share concerns about China.

China has built and militarized man-made islands in the South China Sea and is pressing its claim to virtually all of the sea's key fisheries and waterways. Japan is concerned about China's claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.

China has denied that it is expansionist and said it is only defending its territorial rights.

Suga said Biden gave him reassurance that Washington is committed to protecting Japan's territorial rights to the Senkaku under the bilateral security pact in case of a military clash.

Biden also spoke to Pope Francis on Thursday.

Biden's transition team said in a statement that he thanked Francis for "extending blessings and congratulations and noted his appreciation." He also saluted the pontiff's "leadership in promoting peace, reconciliation, and the common bonds of humanity around the world."

Biden said he hopes to work with Francis on issues such as climate change, poverty and immigration.

CRACKS IN GOP

Separately, Republicans in Washington stood firmly behind Trump on Thursday, but new cracks emerged among GOP leaders elsewhere who believe it's time for the administration to treat Biden like the president-elect.

New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, who endorsed Trump's reelection, acknowledged that Biden's lead is getting "bigger and bigger by the day" and Trump's legal options are dissipating.

"Joe Biden is the president-elect, and I think like most Americans, we suspect he'll be taking the oath of office in January," Sununu told reporters, insisting that there was no legal fraud in his state, which Biden won.

Trump's campaign has also launched legal challenges complaining that its poll watchers were unable to scrutinize the voting process. Many of those challenges have been tossed out by judges.

On Thursday, state and federal officials and election technology companies that run U.S. elections said the Nov. 3 national election was "the most secure in American history." The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said, "there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised."

The agency said Americans should have confidence in the results although "we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections."

Privately, Republicans on Capitol Hill signaled that they would let Trump spin out his election lawsuits and claims until states certify the election results by early December and the Electoral College meets Dec. 14.

But beyond Washington, several high-profile Republicans were not willing to wait that long, particularly as some warn that a Trump fight to undermine the election results could do lasting damage to American democracy.

"I am deeply troubled at the general acceptance of unproven allegations that undermine our electoral system," Utah's incoming Gov. Spencer Cox wrote on Twitter, citing the significant number of Democrats who doubted the legitimacy of Trump's 2016 election victory. "It was wrong then, and it's wrong now."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who endorsed Trump's reelection, said earlier in the week that Americans should honor the election outcome only after the president's legal challenges had been exhausted. By Thursday, he had seen enough.

"We need to consider the former vice president as the president-elect," DeWine told CNN. "Joe Biden is the president-elect."

PENNSYLVANIA RULING

Also Thursday, a Pennsylvania appellate court said it is barring counties from including in their final vote tallies a small pool of mail ballots from people who had failed to provide required ID by a Monday deadline.

In a two-page order, a Commonwealth Court judge struck down a decision by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration to give voters more time, postelection, to fulfill the ID requirement.

Although state law requires only first-time voters to show ID at the polls, all voters who applied to vote by mail had to have their identification validated against state records by Nov. 9.

Two days before the election, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar pushed that date back by three days, citing a court decision earlier this year that allowed late-arriving mail ballots to be counted as long as they had been mailed by Nov. 3 and were received within three days of that date.

In her order Thursday, Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt ruled that Boockvar had no authority to do that.

State officials did not immediately return requests for comment on whether they intended to appeal.

None of the votes affected by the ruling had yet been included in the state's official tally -- which as of Thursday had Biden at a 54,000-vote advantage over Trump.

Trump loyalists have filed at least 15 legal challenges in Pennsylvania in an effort to reclaim the state's 20 electoral votes. There is action, too, in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Michigan.

Also in Pennsylvania, in an interview this week with federal agents, a postal worker walked back his allegation that a supervisor had tampered with mailed ballots, saying he had made "assumptions" based on overheard snippets of conversation, according to an audio recording of the interview posted online Wednesday by activists who have championed his cause.

The two-hour recording shows that Richard Hopkins recanted claims that he had made in a sworn affidavit that top Republicans cited over the weekend as potential evidence of widespread election irregularities and fraud.

Hopkins told federal investigators Monday that his allegations were based on fragments of conversation among co-workers in a noisy mail facility in Erie, Pa., according to the recording.

When an agent from the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General asked Hopkins if he stood by his sworn statement that a supervisor "was backdating ballots" mailed after Election Day, Hopkins answered: "At this point? No."

He also agreed to sign a revised statement that undercut his earlier affidavit.

Those previous allegations had prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to call for the Justice Department to investigate. The Trump campaign also cited them in a lawsuit seeking to delay the certification of election results in Pennsylvania, part of a broad effort to challenge the presidential election results.

Hopkins did not respond to messages seeking comment.

COUNTING IN GEORGIA

Meanwhile, as Georgia counties prepare for a hand tally of the presidential race, the state's top elections official plans to quarantine after his wife tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said Thursday.

The count stems from an audit required by a new state law. Biden leads Trump by 14,000 votes in that state.

"The point of the audit is to show the machines counted the ballots fairly," said Gabriel Sterling, who oversaw the implementation of the state's new voting system for the secretary of state's office.

County election officials must begin the hand tally by 9 a.m. today and complete it by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, state officials said. The state certification deadline is Nov. 20.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's wife, Tricia, tested positive Thursday, the deputy secretary of state, Jordan Fuchs, said. Brad Raffensperger plans to self-quarantine as a precaution even if his test for coronavirus is negative, Fuchs said, adding that the secretary's quarantine will not affect the audit.

Elsewhere, Arizona's Republican attorney general Wednesday rejected the president's voter fraud claims and said Trump is unlikely to overtake Biden in the state.

"It does appear that Joe Biden will win Arizona," state Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a Wednesday interview with Fox Business host Neil Cavuto. "There is no evidence, there are no facts that would lead anyone to believe that the election results will change."

Brnovich, the first high-ranking Republican in Arizona to reject Trump's fraud claims in the state, added that Trump would have to win 65% of the less than 50,000 remaining votes to edge out a victory. It would be "very, highly unlikely to happen," Brnovich said.

Fox News, The Associated Press and Decision Desk HQ have all declared Biden the winner in Arizona. As of Thursday morning, The Washington Post has yet to call the race there. With 99% of the ballots counted as of Thursday morning, Biden leads by more than 11,600, according to The Post.

In Wisconsin, the state's top election official said Thursday that there remained no evidence of any wrongdoing, fraud or irregularity in Wisconsin's presidential election, as counties worked to wrap up the certification of their votes and their estimates of how much it would cost to recount them.

Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by about 20,500 votes, based on unofficial results. Trump and his allies have made claims of wrongdoing, and Republicans in the Legislature have said they planned to launch an investigation into the integrity of the election.

Election results from 55 of Wisconsin's 72 counties were certified as of Thursday morning, with only marginal net changes to the unofficial results that were reported on election night.

Biden has picked up 43 additional votes while Trump gained 39, giving Biden a net pickup of just four votes. One reason for the changes is the counting of provisional ballots that came in after Election Day, said Meagan Wolfe, the state's top elections official.

She said there were 366 provisional ballots issued in the presidential election.

Wolfe defended the integrity of the election, noting all of the opportunities the public has to observe the process, including on Election Day, during the county canvass and during any recount that may occur.

Information for this article was contributed by Kim Tong-hyung, Rod McGuirk, Mari Yamaguchi, Will Weissert, David Crary, Kate Brumback, Ben Nadler, Scott Bauer, Maryclaire Dale, Alanna Durkin Richer, Steve Peoples, Lisa Mascaro, Kathy McCormack, Mary Clare Jalonick and Julie Carr Smyth of The Associated Press; by Jaclyn Peiser, Derek Hawkins, Shawn Boburg, Jacob Bogage and Dalton Bennett of The Washington Post; by Greg Bluestein of The New York Times; and by Jeremy Roebuck of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Banners to support the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. are displayed near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Biden during their 14-minute call reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea and said he would closely coordinate with Seoul in a push to defuse a nuclear standoff with North Korea. The sign at top reads "Anti-China and Pro-the U.S." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Banners to support the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. are displayed near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Biden during their 14-minute call reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea and said he would closely coordinate with Seoul in a push to defuse a nuclear standoff with North Korea. The sign at top reads "Anti-China and Pro-the U.S." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Thursday in Tokyo that he and former Vice President Joe Biden held “a very meaningful telephone conversation” during which they reaffirmed the importance of their countries’ alliance.
(AP/Kyodo News/Yoshitaka Sugawara)
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Thursday in Tokyo that he and former Vice President Joe Biden held “a very meaningful telephone conversation” during which they reaffirmed the importance of their countries’ alliance. (AP/Kyodo News/Yoshitaka Sugawara)
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