Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Bush calls Australia America's `sheriff' in Southeast Asia

AP , SYDNEY

In comments likely to confirm the suspicions of nearby Southeast Asian nations, US President George W. Bush has called Australia America's "sheriff" in the region.

In an interview published yesterday in The Australian newspaper and other journals, Bush heaped praise on Australia and its conservative Prime Minister John Howard for supporting the war on terror and sending troops to fight in Iraq.

Asked whether he saw Australia as Washington's "deputy sheriff" in Southeast Asia -- a description once used by Howard -- Bush replied: "No. We don't see it as a deputy sheriff. We see it as a sheriff."

Bush called the two countries "equal partners, friends and allies. There's nothing deputy about this relationship."

Opposition Labor Party lawmaker Janice Crosio said Southeast Asian governments "may be upset and concerned" by Bush's remarks, which could damage Australia's standing in the region.

In 2000, Howard sparked anger in Asia when he reportedly said Australia's role in Asia could be as a "deputy sheriff" to Washington.

Recently, outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders to denounce Australia as acting like a "deputy general" and a western "transplant" in the region.

Both Howard and Bush will meet Asian and other leaders, including Mahathir, at a 21-nation summit of the APEC forum in Bangkok on Monday and Tuesday.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill, a senior member of Howard's Cabinet, said he agreed with Bush's description.

Asked what the president's comments might mean, Hill said: "I interpreted that to mean ... that he believed we took on a serious role, made a significant contribution to stability, particularly within this region."

"The great thing about Australians is they're not afraid," Bush said during the interview, conducted in the White House earlier this week. "When I go to Australia I'll be speaking to a country which does understand the consequences of sacrificing for something greater than themselves."

Bush is due to visit Canberra and address Australia's Parliament next Thursday. Peace activists are planning major protests during his one-day stint here, which comes at the end of a swing through the region.

Howard, who was visiting Washington on the day of the Sept. 11 terror attacks there and in New York, defied widespread public opposition by sending 2,000 troops to fight alongside US and British forces in the initial attack on Iraq.

Before the Australian force left, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to voice their opposition in the largest protests since the Vietnam war.

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