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U.S., Australia to ask China to exercises: report

CANBERRA (Reuters) - China will be asked by the United States and Australia to join military exercises to repair ties after a diplomatic row between Canberra and Beijing, a top U.S. military official said on Thursday.

Following a meeting between Australia’s military chief Angus Houston and U.S. Pacific Command head Admiral Timothy Keating, both countries agreed to approach China’s defence ministry about joint naval and land exercises, Keating told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in an interview. “We are anxious to engage with them,” Keating said.

Relations between Australia and China have been soured by the arrest in China an Australian mining executive for commercial espionage and by the granting of an Australian visa to an exiled ethnic Uighur leader, which infuriated Beijing.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said economic interdependence between his country and China, its biggest trade partner, would ultimately override the differences, with two-way trade worth $53 billion at stake.

“We need to take a long-term view of our relationship and we need to be patient. That’s the sensible thing to do and that’s what we’re doing,” he told reporters in Perth.

Both Canberra and Washington have been worried by China’s build-up of sea and air military power. Also concerned is Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.

China in March unveiled its 2009 military budget of $70.24 billion, the latest in nearly two decades of double-digit rises in declared defense spending.

“We want to understand much better than we do now China’s intentions. China does publish a (defence) white paper but we find it to be less than fulfilling,” Keating said in his interview.


Before the current diplomatic difficulties, Canberra in May published a military strategy blueprint, or white paper, pinpointing China’s rise as the greatest threat to Asia security and querying its “pace, scope and structure”.

Keating said joint exercises could start with small naval and land activities, followed by personnel exchanges. He discounted any notion that stronger China ties would upset U.S. allies and powers such as India, Japan and South Korea.

“We can control the rheostat on this and invite nations to observe and participate,” he told the daily. “It is a fairly simple thing to do.”

Australia’s Sinophile Prime Minister Kevin Rudd won unexpected backing on Thursday for his firm line on China relations from his conservative predecessor John Howard, swept aside by Rudd’s Labor in 2007 after almost 12 years in power.

“I think he’s been very sensible,” Howard said of the Mandarin-speaking Rudd, adding he was “quite correct” in the position he took on granting a visit visa to Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, ignoring strong Chinese protests.

Asked about Beijing’s response, Howard told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The Chinese were always going to do that. They are very clumsy, diplomatically. They have this thing where they say, ‘You can’t see somebody’, which means immediately that you have to see them.”