New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd left Australia on Thursday on his first big overseas trip, armed with plans to make his country more active in global affairs and bearing bad news for US President George W Bush on Iraq.
Before departing, Rudd, elected four months ago as Australia’s first new leader in more than a decade, outlined a foreign policy vision that contrasts with his predecessor by offering stronger support for the United Nations, while hinting at looser ties with Washington.
The first stop in a 17-day trip to Australia’s most important strategic and economic partners is Washington, where Rudd will confirm his policy of withdrawing Australia’s 550 combat troops from Iraq in a face-to-face meeting with Bush.
Rudd will then hold talks with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York before attending a NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania, where he will repeat Australia’s demands for greater involvement in the security alliance’s Afghanistan planning and press for more European troops in the war-torn country.
Other stops include London, Brussels and Beijing, where Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat to China, will stress Australia’s growing economic ties on Asia and Canberra’s commitment to engaging with the region.
In a major speech late Wednesday, Rudd said his government had spent its first three months in power focusing on domestic issues but was now turning its attention overseas.
He said Australia existed in an “increasingly joined-up world” with which it must become more engaged to meet economic, security and environmental challenges posed to all nations.
“The truth is, Australia’s voice has been too quiet for too long across the various councils of the world,” Rudd said in the speech.
“That is why during the course of the next three years, the world will see an increasingly activist Australian international policy in areas where we believe we can make a difference.”
The comment contrasts with the approach of his predecessor, the conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who was often criticized for being too close to Washington, especially on the issue of Australia joining the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and letting Australia’s relations with the United Nations erode.
After his election, Rudd quickly reversed Howard’s policies on two controversial areas involving the United States: he sign the Kyoto Protocol on fighting global warming, leaving Washington isolated as a holdout among developed nations; and vowed to bring Australian troops home from Iraq.
Australia has some 1,500 troops in and around Iraq, and Rudd has said he will pull out the combat contingent by the middle of this year, leaving the others in support roles. Australia’s 1,000 troops in Afghanistan will not be changed.
Rudd on Wednesday stressed that Australia’s alliance with the United States remained one of the fundamental pillars of his country’s foreign policy, and senior officials on both sides say Rudd’s policy changes will not harm the countries’ long-standing ties.
Ties with Australia formed “one of our most important relationships,” US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said on Wednesday at a briefing in Washington.
Rudd said security, climate change and foreign aid would be among the issues for discussion with world leaders during his trip. But Australia’s economic interests and the financial fallout from global credit crunch would be at the top of his agenda.
In a separate speech on Thursday, Rudd said the regulation of financial systems should be more global and cautioned that countries should not retreat into protectionism as a result of the current crisis in financial markets.
“As financial markets become more global and assets are traded more quickly between nations, so too must regulation and supervision become more global,” Rudd said. “The current crisis has highlighted the importance of disclosure and transparency.”
He said Australia’s central bank and government finance officials are already in talks with their offshore counterparts about managing the crisis. (AP)
Australian PM refocus foreign policy on first overseas trip