Sun, Jun 20, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Australia confirms plans to join US missile program

AP , SYDNEY

Australia will join a US missile-defense program next month, the government said yesterday, in a move expected to rankle neighboring Asian countries which already regard Australia as a tool of US foreign policy in the region.

Defense Minister Robert Hill said Australian and US defense officials will sign a memorandum of understanding on the missile shield during meetings next month.

The memorandum "will provide a 25-year framework under which broad areas of cooperation can be agreed," Hill said. "We will then enter into more specific arrangements as we agree on individual projects that will be involved in the program."

"This is a long-term commitment to securing our future and strengthening the alliance," Hill said in the statement.

Australia's plans to join the US program -- which include spending millions of dollars upgrading a radar system -- have riled Asian governments who still remember US President George W. Bush last year dubbing Australia a US "sheriff" in the region.

"I can assure Australia that if it acts as a sheriff in this country he will be treated as a terrorist and dealt with as a terrorist," Malaysia's then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said last October.

Hill said earlier this year that the government would spend A$62 million (US$48 million) improving a so-called "over the horizon" radar system that can detect ships and aircraft up to 2,000km beyond Australia's northern border.

Hill said yesterday that the first area of cooperation would involve the research, development and testing of technologies that could be used in the missile-defense program.

"This will not only be in our strategic defense interests ... but also provide maximum opportunities for Australian industry," Hill said.

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