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US, Australia Reaffirm Alliance After Leadership Change in Canberra

  • Barry Kalb

The United States and Australia have reaffirmed their alliance in the first high-level meeting between the two countries since the installation of the new Kevin Rudd government in December. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met Saturday in Canberra with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith and Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. Barry Kalb has details from VOA's Asia news center in Hong Kong.

When he was campaigning to take over the Australian government last year, Kevin Rudd made it clear he would modify Australia's relationship with the United States, particularly on the issue of Iraq.

Now prime minister, Mr. Rudd has confirmed he will pull out more than 500 of the approximately one thousand Australian troops deployed in the Persian Gulf region.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates might have had reason to be upset with the Rudd government. Under the government of former Prime Minister John Howard, Australia was one of Washington's strongest supporters on military matters.

But Gates told reporters while en route to Australia Friday that he anticipated "continuity" in U.S.-Australian affairs. After meeting with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon Saturday, Gates indicated that the relationship is essentially unchanged.

"The United States has no better partner and no stronger ally than Australia," he said.

On other matters, Smith says he told the U.S. delegation Australia's growing commercial relationship with China should in no way damage Canberra's ties to Washington. He says he told Gates and Negroponte that the United States should have a constructive dialogue with Beijing, whose military modernization has been a concern to Washington.

Despite Mr. Rudd's planned pull-back in Iraq, military ties between Australia and the U.S. remain strong. Defense Minister Fitzgibbon told reporters Saturday he would like the option of buying America's state-of-the-art F-22 Raptor fighter jet.

Gates said U.S. law currently forbids sale of the Raptor to foreign countries, but he encouraged Australia to lobby the U.S. Congress to amend that law.