Canberra set to restore ties with America

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True to its word, Australia's five-month-old conservative coalition government has wasted little time restoring to pre-eminence the country's defence and security links with the United States.

Next year sees the launch of the country's biggest peace-time military exercise, involving 17,000 US and 5,000 Australian troops in Queensland.

The US-controlled spying base at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, will be upgraded and Australia will also approve a US base to be built as a relay station for the space-based early-warning programme.

The deals follow talks between Australian ministers and the most high- powered Washington delegation to visit for several years, including Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, William Perry, the Defense Secretary, and General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

John Howard, the Prime Minister, has made it clear he regards the Australian- US alliance as the centrepiece of his government's foreign-policy review. It is a marked shift from policy over the past 13 years under his Labor predecessors, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, who sought to give Australia's foreign relations a more multilateral, Asian focus and less reliance on traditional ties with America and Europe. Australians were asked to accept they belong to an Asian country: many felt instinctively uncomfortable with the notion.

Mr Howard says the revived US alliance did not mean a downgrading of relations with Asia. "We do not have to choose between our history and our geography." History in this context dates from 1941, when the American alliance was born as Australia turned to the US to save it from Japanese invasion.

Yet reconciling the bolstered American alliance with Australia's new- found Asian engagement may be harder than Mr Howard realises. Almost three- quarters of Australia's exports go to Asia, where Canberra enjoys a healthy surplus. Washington has paid little heed to protests against American trade policies that hit Australia hard, such as subsidised US farm products being sold in Australian markets in Asia.

Mr Howard's critics accuse him of naively hankering after an old dependence on the US at the expense of strengthening Australia's own regional ties, when experience has shown Washington has always put its own interests ahead of those of its smaller alliance partner.