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Australia Ready to Participate in US Missile Defense Program

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says his government would be "recklessly negligent" if it did not consider joining the United States' missile defense program. Mr. Howard's comments come as the United States' highest-ranking military officer visits Australia.

Prime Minister Howard says Australia's long-term security depends on its special relationship with the United States.

His government is keen to take part in the U.S. missile defense program. Mr. Howard said Friday it is "common sense" for his country to join the program.

He made the comments after meeting in Sydney with U.S. General Richard Myers, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the top American military officer. General Myers was visiting Australia at the end of a four-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific region to discuss shared defense issues.

Negotiations on Australia's role in the missile defense program are still at an early stage. Although the system has not been proven effective, Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill says tests aboard a U.S. destroyer have been encouraging.

"The Americans picked up the launch from one Aegis ship, identified the launch, determined the track the missile was going to take, communicated that to another Aegis ship which was closer to the target range," he said. "That ship picked it up in its radar system, launched a SM-3 missile that basically knocked the incoming missile out outside of the atmosphere."

After meeting with Mr. Howard and Australia's defense chief, General Peter Cosgrove, General Myers said Washington and Canberra will consider setting up a joint military training facility in Australia. He said the idea would not involve basing any additional U.S. troops in the country.

He also discussed the security situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, along with Asia-Pacific security concerns. The United States considers the region an active front in the campaign against terrorism.

Australia's enthusiasm for the U.S. missile strategy worries some of its neighbors in Asia. China is unhappy about an Australian role in a program it dislikes, and Indonesia has warned it could spark a new arms race.

Prime Minister Howard, however, insists that plans for a defensive shield would not "rupture or upset relations" with Australia's friends in the region.

Beyond its military alliance, Australia also has important commercial ties with the United States. Fifty Australian negotiators are heading to Washington this weekend for the final round of talks on a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.