The United States and Australia celebrated the 50th anniversary of their military alliance Monday in Washington. The ceremony dramatized years of co-operation. But the talks that followed between President Bush and Prime Minister John Howard produced little movement on an economic issue of great interest to the Australian government. That issue is trade.
The Australian leader came to Washington hoping to convince President Bush to launch negotiations on a free trade pact.
But the idea became a victim of bad timing. As he left the White House, Prime Minister Howard said Mr. Bush could not make any new commitments while battling Congress over his request for expanded trade-negotiating authority.
Mr. Howard said the United States and Australian trade ministers would consult in the months ahead, and would report on their findings by the end of the year.
A joint statement on the talks issued a short time later made clear the Bush administration has not ruled out free trade negotiations with Australia at some point in the future. But for Prime Minister Howard, who is seeking a third term in office this year, the lack of an immediate commitment to formal negotiations was a disappointment.
Still, he seemed pleased that the visit provided an opportunity to dramatize the depth of the overall relationship between the United States and Australia.
Before the Oval office meeting, the two leaders took part in ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of their military alliance.
They went to a U.S. naval facility in Washington, where President Bush presented the Australian government with the ship's bell from the USS Canberra. The Canberra went into service at the height of World War II. It was named after an Australian warship lost in 1942 in the Battle of Guadalcanal. President Bush said, "From this visit Mr. Prime Minister, I hope that you will take away renewed optimism about our shared future. And I know that you will take with you a parcel weighing approximately 250 pounds. It's a fine bell with a great history. And once you get it home, it will always stand as a sign of the unbounded respect of our nation for the Australian people."
President Bush described the United States and Australia as "natural allies." Prime Minister Howard also talked about five decades of military cooperation and the legacy of the ANZUS Treaty. He said, "We have fought side by side with the United States in many conflicts. We have worked together in peacekeeping operations, most recently in East Timor. And both of us have been forces for the expansion and not the contraction of democracy."
Australian peacekeepers went into East Timor after voters there cast ballots in 1999 to cut ties with Indonesia, resulting in massive bloodshed. In their joint statement, President Bush and Prime Minister Howard emphasized the need for international support and assistance for East Timor. They also stressed the importance of recent political events in Indonesia, praising that country's successful democratic transition.