Australian Group Aims To Boost Ties With US

WHEN he was in Australia last January, former President Bush remarked that he would become the last president to embody the emotional ties flowing from the mutual experiences of both countries from World War II.

Now, fearing that United States-Australia relations are drifting, a high-powered group from both countries is trying to find an anchor.

This weekend in Washington, the group called the Australian American Education Leadership Foundation plans meetings with current and former State Department officials, US think tanks, advisers to President Clinton, journalists, and US business leaders.

The Australian group represents both sides of the Down Under political scene, the arts, business, academia, and journalism. Although the group is privately funded, it is officially encouraged by Prime Minister Paul Keating and includes three Australian Cabinet ministers.

"It is unique. No other group has been pulled together for the common purpose to help mold the next era of the relationship between Australia and the US in a manner which enhances the national interest of both countries," says Phil Scanlan, chairman of the group.

"It will hopefully lead to a network of connections between senior men and women with leadership roles," says Mr. Scanlan, who expects that the group's meetings will alternate countries each year.

The group's US agenda will focus on such issues as regional security, the economy, the key players in the region such as China and Japan, and institutional initiatives, such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In addition, the Australians feel that they can share their perspective on national issues, such as budget problems, industrial policy, and health care.

The Australians hope to focus on the common values shared by the two countries.

Both countries, Scanlan says, "aim to be exemplars of a democratic, multiethnic pluralistic society." He readily admits, however, that both countries have different interests. Australia, at Mr. Keating's urging, has begun to shift its focus from Europe and the US to Asia.

Scanlan sees this shift as a potential positive for the US-Australia relationship since, "we aim to be one of the best informed about Asia in the region." Within the initial group of Australians is Richard Woolcott, who helped to set up APEC, and Ross Garnaut, a former Australian ambassador to China.

In recent years, Australia's interest has sometimes collided with American concerns. For example, the US protects its domestic sugar and beef farmers with quotas. Australian farmers, who are not subsidized, are hindered from exporting to the US by those quotas.

And Australian farmers have long complained about US export subsidies on wheat. But Scanlan says the group will not be discussing such long-running disputes.

Instead, it will focus on areas in which the two countries have common concerns. This is likely to include chemical-weapons bans and the security threat for the region posed by North Korea, says Robert Zoellick, the American coordinator for the dialogue and former undersecretary for Economic and Agricultural Affairs for Mr. Bush.

"There are lots of commonalities and possibilities for sharing information," says Mr. Zoellick, who is now an executive vice president at the Federal National Mortgage Association in Washington.

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