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U.S., Australia Reinforce Defense Relationships

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

CANBERRA, Australia, Feb. 23, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today reinforced the longstanding relationship between Australia and the United States and pledged continued cooperation between the countries’ defense departments.

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From left: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephen Smith pose for a photo before the kickoff of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 23, 2008. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, USAF

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Gates and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met here with their counterparts of the Australian government, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith and Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, for the 19th annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations. This is the first visit by a senior-level U.S. official to this country to meet with the newly elected Australian government.

“Our meetings today prove once again that our friendships endure across generations and across different administrations in both of our governments,” Gates said in a news conference in Australia’s Parliament House. “The bonds of unity that grew from our common heritage and have been strengthened on battlefields around the world are every bit as strong as they have ever been.”

The talks were global in nature, with both sides reiterating their commitments to working together to confront contemporary security challenges, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism, officials said.

Gates heralded Australia’s efforts to provide stability in the region and commended the country on providing global leadership.

“The governments continue to work on ways to advance our shared interests on a number of fronts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting terrorism across the globe, countering (weapons of mass destruction) proliferation, coordinating humanitarian relief and strengthening our ties in other areas,” Gates said.

“Above all, we agree on both the challenges we must face together and the solutions we must forge together. As has been for many years, the United States has no better partner and no stronger ally than Australia,” the secretary said.

The two sides discussed plans for the mid-year withdrawal of Australia’s 500 combat troops from southern Iraq, a move that is seen as a shift by the newly elected Australian government to a more support-oriented stance in Iraq. Australia now has about 1,500 troops in Iraq -- a mix of combat, training, aviation and support forces. Those slated to leave will be pulled from the south, in areas where Iraqi security forces can take over operations. The newly elected government campaigned on a pledge to remove the combat troops and is fulfilling its commitment, Smith said.

Both sides called on the international community and, in particular NATO members, to sustain and enhance contributions to Afghanistan. There are no plans to remove any of Australia’s nearly 1,000 troops from Afghanistan, Smith said. Australia is not a member of NATO.

When questioned by Australian reporters about the need for additional troops from their country to deploy to Afghanistan, Gates cited the additional 3,200 U.S. Marines that will go to the country for a seven-month deployment beginning in spring.

“I’ve been pretty outspoken over the past few weeks about the need for other allies to also dig deep and to meet the needs that have been articulated by the (International Security Assistance Force) commander in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “One thing I want to be clear on: Individual countries have met the individual commitments that they have made to Afghanistan. The commitment that has not been fulfilled is the commitment made by the leaders of the alliance to provide the ISAF commander with what he needs to be successful. So it is this broader requirement that the leaders of NATO have agreed to that has not been met and where I have been hopeful that other members of the alliance can find the wherewithal and political will to provide additional forces.”

Gates said some allies have made additional troop commitments and that he hopes others will “step up.”

Smith called the alliance between Australia and the United States the “bedrock” of his country’s defense, security and strategic arrangements. “It’s fundamental; it’s long term; it’s enduring; and it is, of course, indispensable,” Smith said.

The foreign minister also reinforced the need for a U.S. presence in the region. “Just as Australia’s engagement in Asia and the Asian Pacific (region) is important, so is the engagement of the United States in our region,” Smith said.

In the talks, the two sides agreed to continue to build capacity in Southeast Asia in key areas such as counterterrorism and maritime security. Specifically, both sides agreed to assist regional countries to improve port security and to constrain the movement of terrorist finances, according to a joint communique released after the talks.

The sides also discussed Iran’s nuclear activities and its defiance of United Nations Security Council resolution requiring the country to suspend all uranium enrichment-related activities. While “deeply concerned,” both countries supported a diplomatic solution to the issue, according to the communique.

In other defense-related issues, both sides pledged to reach agreements on combining humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities as well as working more closely together in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. They also discussed overcoming barriers to sharing defense-related technologies that would improve interoperability of forces.

Also attending the talks were Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and U.S. Pacific Command chief Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating. The United States will host the next such talks sometime in 2009.

This is Gates’ second stop on a nine-day trip that includes Indonesia, India and Turkey.

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Robert M. Gates
Adm. Mike Mullen, USN
Adm. Timothy J. Keating, USN

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary Robert M. Gates talks to the press as Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith listens. Gates had just signed a U.S.-Australian Military Satellite Communication Partnership agreement during the 19th annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 23, 2008. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, USAF   
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