Clinton takes a breather Down Under

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President Bill Clinton arrives in Australia today for some post-re-election recreation before moving on to the serious business of the summit in the Philippines at the weekend of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) group of countries.

From Hawaii Mr Clinton yesterday telephoned John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, to warn him that the failed Russian space probe to Mars, carrying plutonium-powered batteries, was likely to crash anywhere between the Timor and Tasman seas, with the towns of Broken Hill and Tibooburra the most likely targets. After an alert, the crippled vehicle eventually swooped across the country and plunged into the Pacific off Chile.

The incident will have helped the two leaders to get to know each other when they meet tomorrow for Mr Clinton's one working day during his four-day visit. That will be when he flies from Sydney to Canberra for talks with Mr Howard and his cabinet and addresses both houses of parliament, only the second American president after his predecessor, George Bush, to do so.

Back in Sydney, Mr Howard will host Mr Clinton and his wife, Hillary, on a night cruise of Sydney Harbour. On Thursday the Clintons do a walkabout in Sydney and make an address at the city's botanic gardens.

Mrs Clinton will go on to the Sydney Opera House and give a speech on Women in the 21st Century.

They fly on Thursday to Cairns, Queensland, and take a helicopter to the town of Port Douglas, near the Great Barrier Reef, where Mr Clinton's real post-election wind-down of golf and snorkelling will begin, but not before he makes a statement about the world environment on Friday.

If the statements and walkabouts suggest an air of populism, that is the main reason for Mr Clinton's detour to Australia on his way to the Apec summit. Before his talks with 17 Asian and Pacific leaders on trade liberalisation in the region, Mr Clinton will be showing Washington's commitment to a revived relationship with Australia since the election in March of the conservative Liberal-National coalition under Mr Howard.

The previous, Labor, government, headed by Paul Keating, had made much of re-steering Australia's foreign policy towards Asia. The conservatives, under Mr Howard, keen to differentiate themselves from their opponents, have sought to revive the traditional cornerstone of Australian policy, the American alliance. In reality, there is little difference between the two sides of Australian politics.

The formation of the Apec group in the early Nineties was largely the brainchild of Labor, designed to achieve the same ends of cementing an American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region in the post-Cold War world.

Mr Howard spoke on Sunday of "the shared destiny of Australia and the United States in the Asia Pacific region" and Mr Clinton is likely to echo those sentiments in his address to parliament. Four months ago, Washington and Canberra formally reaffirmed their alliance with a declaration that they would conduct upgraded joint annual military exercises in Australia involving about 20,000 American troops.

The declaration angered China, which has also made its displeasure known over Mr Clinton's visit. Peking has described Washington's alliances with Japan and Australia as akin to "two crab claws" aimed at China.