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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 13:37 GMT
Australia making Asian friends
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Japan and Australia hope the pact will increase regional stability
Australia's diplomatic march into Asia is continuing, with its latest achievement being a historic security pact with Japan.

The agreement is seen as a good result for both countries.

"It's a very significant accord," explained Professor Alan Dupont from the University of Sydney.

"It reflects the fact that Japan is moving to develop a more assertive defence and foreign policy."

The bilateral arrangement is also a boost to Canberra's long-term efforts to make more friends in Asia. It will lead to increased co-operation in the fight against terrorism, and more joint disaster relief operations.

"It is generally accepted that in the region Australia is part of Asia," said Prof Dupont.

"That is a historic shift. Australia was always seen as a bit of an outpost of empire, and its people transplanted Europeans. I don't think that is the perception now," he added.

Chinese fears

Australia wants to engage more with its neighbours in Asia for two main reasons: to pursue economic opportunity and to enhance security.

These efforts are not new, but they have now reached unprecedented heights.

Professor Alan Dupont
The volatility in the relationship between Australia and its Asian neighbours usually refers to ties with Indonesia or Malaysia
Prof Dupont
For the past two decades, Australian leaders have seen the strategic importance of alliances with Asia's biggest players.

Trade with its regional partners has helped Australia's economy boom. Japan is its biggest export market, while commercial ties with China continue to blossom.

Australia has been working towards a free trade deal with the Chinese for the past couple of years, and similar talks with the Japanese are expected to begin within weeks.

This all requires some nifty diplomatic footwork on the part of Australia's veteran Prime Minister John Howard, who is also one of Washington's most loyal allies.

Tokyo and Beijing are not the best of friends. The danger for Mr Howard is that he could be caught in the middle of any dispute between these Asian giants.

Australia's security accord with Japan has not been received well in China, according to Dr Jian Zhang, a China specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

"I think China will not be happy about the new agreement," said Dr Zhang. "It will see it as an effort to counter-balance China's growing influence in the region."

"It will reinforce China's suspicions that an anti-China group is forming among US allies in the region. As a result China will accelerate its military modernisation programme," he predicted.

Mr Howard has tried to play down Beijing's concerns by repeating his assertion that it has nothing to worry about.

The defence agreement with Japan "should not be seen as being antagonistic to anybody in the region," the Australian leader said.

Volatile relationship

Mr Howard has often found it tough going in his efforts to make friends in Asia, and not everyone has welcomed Australia's entry into the Asian club.

Bali bomb attack
Australia and Indonesia shared grief over the Bali bombs

His declaration after the Bali bombings in 2002 that his government was prepared to launch military strikes against terrorists in neighbouring Asian countries did not go down well.

Former Malaysian leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad famously denounced Australians as a country "that stands out like a sore thumb trying to impose its European values in Asia".

"The volatility in the relationship between Australia and its Asian neighbours usually refers to ties with Indonesia or Malaysia," said Prof Alan Dupont.

Tragedy has brought Canberra and Jakarta closer together in recent years, most notably after atrocities in Bali and the huge tsunami in December 2004.

But Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently insisted that Australia was still regarded as an outsider in parts of Asia.

"The perception remains that Australia has not changed considerably from their old racist white supremacy, or racist policies," Mr Anwar told Australian radio.

"But we must recognise there have been major changes, and I think people do recognise this, but they don't think that the change is radical enough."

While Australia is gradually strengthening its economic and political ties across Asia, there is still one Australian alliance that stands head and shoulders above all the others.

Mr Howard has made it abundantly clear that his country's long-term future depends on its close relationship with the United States.

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