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Last Updated: Friday, 8 April, 2005, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Australia's Howard reaches out to Asia
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and John Howard
Mr Yudhoyono and Mr Howard greeted each other like old friends
It has been an illuminating week of foreign diplomacy in Canberra.

Two high-powered Asian leaders have been in the Australian capital as guests of Prime Minister John Howard.

His conservative government is seeking to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, in order to boost the war on terror and exploit economic opportunities.

First to fly in was Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who radiated unprecedented warmth towards his host.

"According to a top-secret intelligence report," Mr Yudhoyono told a reception at Parliament House, "Today is very big day for Prime Minister Howard. I hear today is the 37th wedding anniversary of John and Janette Howard."

President, you come as a true friend
Mr Howard to Mr Yudhoyono
It was an extraordinary display of jokey familiarity by an Indonesian president towards an Australian leader.

There was a time when Mr Yudhoyono's predecessor would not even return Mr Howard's telephone calls.

Six years ago, relations between Australia and its close neighbour to the north soured immeasurably when Canberra led a United Nations peacekeeping force into East Timor after it voted to secede from Indonesia.

Mistrust has been replaced by co-operation, at least at the highest levels of government.

"President, you come as a true friend," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said as he welcomed his Indonesian guest. "You come to this country as a man I respect and like a great deal."

Relations have improved as a result of a series of tragic events involving both nations, according to Andrew MacIntyre from the Australian National University.

The terrorist attacks on nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002 mostly killed Australian tourists, and there was also a deadly attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta last year.

More recently, nine Australian service personnel died in a helicopter crash while delivering aid to the quake-hit Indonesian island of Nias earlier this month.

Labor foundations

Australia is not just friendly with Indonesia. It has strong ties with countries throughout Asia, including South Korea, Japan and Singapore.

Bali bomb blast
Many Australians died in the attack on the island of Bali

"Australia contributes to the stability of the region and enhances peace and stability in South East Asia," Singaporean President SR Nathan said at a recent function.

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating is widely credited with laying solid foundations for such friendships.

In the early 1990s, his Labor administration worked hard at building bridges with Asia.

He has been scathing of his successor John Howard's attitude to Australia's northern neighbours.

"Back in 1996, Howard, with his old-world, Cold War sycophancy... set about wasting our relationships with Asia while overdoing our relationship with the US," Mr Keating wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this week.

But Russell Trood, an academic elected to Australia's upper of parliament last October, dismissed Mr Keating's claims that the conservatives had neglected Asia.

"The line that is often spoken that Australia's engagements with Asia have deteriorated since 1996 is just completely unpersuasive," he said.

"There is a series of events almost every year that put the lie to that kind of analysis," he added.

'Puppet of the US'

One country which still has a difficult relationship with Canberra is Malaysia.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Malaysia's Abdullah Badawi was also in town, to visit Mr Howard

Its former leader Mahathir Mohamad saw Australia as a Western outpost that was simply a puppet for the United States.

This week, his successor Abdullah Badawi was in Canberra in a visit designed to officially cast off those testy times.

But underneath, tensions still simmer over Australia's Iraq policy and its close relationship with the US.

At issue too is Australia's refusal to sign a non-aggression treaty with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), which means it reserves the right to pre-emptively strike against terrorist threats in neighbouring states.

It is a stance that has not gone down well in the region.

It is clear that while Australia is intent on having a greater say in Asian affairs, progress will not always be smooth and further delicate diplomacy lies ahead.


SEE ALSO:
Australia and Indonesia plan pact
04 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Australians killed in quake crash
03 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia vows to punish Bali bombers
17 Oct 02 |  Asia-Pacific


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