Sunday, March 11, 2007

Australian PM to sign security pact in Japan

Source: CNN.

TOKYO, Japan (AP) -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard is expected to sign a security declaration with his Japanese counterpart during a four-day trip to Tokyo that started Sunday, officials said.

He said Friday that the declaration will underline the two countries' increasingly close security relationship.

Those ties vastly improved after Australian troops provided security for a Japanese humanitarian mission, comprising about 600 troops, in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. The non-combat mission ended in July.

"One of the reasons why it has been possible to move towards this Joint Declaration is the close partnership between Australia and Japan in Iraq," Howard said, according to the transcript of the news conference in Sydney on Friday published on his Web site.

Howard sidestepped a question about whether the declaration would aim to curtail North Korea's nuclear ambitions, saying that issue might be addressed after the agreement is signed.

The declaration could include cooperation on peacekeeping and disaster operations as well as joint exercises within the Australian territory, Japan's business daily Nikkei reported Saturday, without citing where it got the information from.

Officials at the Japanese Foreign Ministry were not available for comment Sunday.

Howard was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday when they will seal the joint security declaration at a signing ceremony, according to an itinerary provided by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Tokyo and Sydney are scheduled to launch negotiations on a free trade agreement on April 23. Japan has been Australia's largest export market for nearly 40 years.

While the two countries enjoy close economic ties, Australia and Japan disagree on whaling.

Asked if he plans to raise the issue with Abe, Howard said, "I will of course in the course of our discussions."

Japan has been pushing for a resumption of commercial whaling while Australia strongly opposes it.

Howard will also meet Foreign Minister Taro Aso on Monday and attend a luncheon hosted by the Japan-Australia Business Conference on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said.

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