Australia to step up formal partnership with NATO at summit

SYDNEY Tue Sep 2, 2014 1:52am EDT

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 12, 2014.     REUTERS/Larry Downing

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 12, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is set to step up its partnership with NATO, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, as the country pursues a bigger role in global crises from Iraq and Syria to Ukraine.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is due to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders at a G20 summit in November, has used a number of recent speeches to signal a more muscular approach to foreign policy.

Although Australia is not a NATO member, its troops fought alongside the coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called the basis for an expanded partnership in current and future conflicts.

"Tomorrow the defense minister and I will travel to Wales to attend the NATO summit and I can confirm that Australia will be accepting a formal invitation to become what is called an enhanced partner," Bishop told parliament.

Membership in the Enhanced Partnership Program is designed to give non-member states earlier access to the planning of military operations and a presence in NATO's governing bodies.

Australia on Monday unveiled fresh sanctions against Russia over what Abbott called its "bullying" of neighboring Ukraine, where the Kremlin is accused of backing pro-Russian insurgent groups battling the government in Kiev.

Abbott has struck perhaps the toughest line of any Western leader against the rebels in Ukraine, accused by Western countries and intelligence agencies of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July, killing all 298 passengers and crew, including 28 Australians.

Australia has also joined a multinational relief effort, dropping military equipment and aid to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.

Abbott has not ruled out participating in air strikes in Iraq or Syria.

The NATO summit on Thursday and Friday will mark the end of 13 years of combat in Afghanistan by U.S. and other foreign troops.

(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)