CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will play a more activist role in world affairs as it seeks too boost its middle-power influence, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Wednesday ahead of a major overseas trip.
In his first foreign policy speech since his centre-left Labor Party won power last November, Rudd said Australia’s economic and security interests relied upon the country being more engaged with allies, regional forums and the United Nations.
“The truth is Australia’s voice has been too quiet for too long,” Rudd said in a speech to an East Asia forum.
“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 may be able to make a positive difference.”
Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, leaves on Thursday for a 17-day world trip to the United States, London, Bucharest for a summit on Afghanistan, and four days in China. It will be his biggest foreign policy trip since taking office.
He said he would use the trip to discuss the global financial crisis and to push Australia’s strong economy.
But Rudd has been criticized by conservative politicians in Australia for not also visiting Japan, which was Australia’s biggest trading partner until China recently took over due to its booming demand for Australian mineral resources.
Rudd sought to allay Japanese concerns in an interview published on the front page of Japan’s Asahi daily on Wednesday, where he was asked about his criticism of Japan’s whaling and the fact that Tokyo was not on the itinerary of this trip.
“The relationship is strong, mature and healthy,” the paper quoted him as saying in comments translated into Japanese, adding the relationship was a fundamental one for Australia and he was optimistic the whaling dispute could be resolved.
International affairs analyst Michael Fullilove said Rudd would have to juggle warming ties with China against commitments to traditional ally the United States on his overseas trip.
He said Rudd would want to reassure President George W. Bush that the United States would remain Australia’s top ally, despite Rudd pulling frontline troops out of Iraq and pushing to strengthen trade ties with China.
“He will emphasize the continuity in our alliance,” Fullilove, from Australia’s Lowy Institute and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in the United States, told Reuters.
“That’s one thing that President Bush wants to hear, and that’s one thing Prime Minister Rudd will say.”
Australia’s 57-year military alliance with the United States is at the core of Australia’s strategic policy. Australia is the only country to have fought alongside U.S. forces in every major conflict of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
Rudd will use his trip to hold talks with United Nations Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and to attend a NATO summit in Romania, where he will urge NATO alliance members to commit more troops to Afghanistan.
Australia, with about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, wants European NATO members to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and relax conditions placed on their deployment, and to focus more on ways to help rebuild the troubled country.
(Additional reporting by Isobel Reynolds in Tokyo)
Editing by Alex Richardson