President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard put aside differences over China yesterday, using a joint news conference to reaffirm their strong friendship and commitment to fighting terrorism.
After a 50-minute private meeting on Iraq, trade and Asia-Pacific issues, Bush paid tribute to the Australian leader's courage and "backbone," saying he welcomed the opportunity for two "old friends" to talk.
Praising Howard for his support during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the president promised that the military deployment in the region will not be open-ended. "I assured him that our position is one that says, as the Iraqis stand up, America stands down," Bush said.
Howard is under domestic pressure to bring home troops from Iraq. Kim Beazley, leader of the opposition Labor Party, called the situation a "quagmire." Australia has 1,300 troops in and around Iraq, and 150 more elite soldiers are scheduled to go to Afghanistan before the end of September.
Both leaders stressed that despite recent difficulties, including a suicide bombing Saturday in the southern Iraqi town of Musayyib that killed at least 100 people, their troops will stay until the job is done. "I'm not going to try and put a time limit on our commitment in Iraq," Howard said.
Howard has used his five-day trip to the United States to vigorously defend his country's role in the fight against terrorism. After a 40-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Monday, Howard rejected suggestions that Australia has become more of a target for al Qaeda.
Aides to Bush and Howard said they did not know whether the subject of David Hicks, the Australian terrorism suspect being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was raised during the meeting. Hicks is facing a U.S. military commission on charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit war crimes. Howard has previously endorsed the military commissions.
Bush and Howard played down their differences over China, an increasingly important trading partner for Australia. Bush said there were several differences on the trade front between Washington and Beijing over the value of the Chinese currency and intellectual property rights. He called the U.S. relationship with China "very important and very vibrant" but "complex."
Howard said: "We have different relationships with the United States and China. But I have a more optimistic view about the relationship between China and the United States, and I know that the leadership of both countries understands the importance of common sense in relation to Taiwan, a recognition that there are differences of philosophy between the two societies."
Bush also pledged to find a diplomatic solution to the situation in North Korea, promising to engage the rest of the region in an effort to avert a crisis.
"We're pleased that the six-party talks has become renewed, and that we're sincere about working with China and South Korea and Japan and Russia to bring some common sense to the leader of North Korea," he said. North Korea confirmed yesterday that it will resume nuclear disarmament talks after a 13-month boycott.
Howard used the meeting to impress on Bush the crucial role of Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific region. He said the country -- the third-largest democracy and largest Islamic country in the world -- is immensely important and that its success is key to the intellectual debate in relation to terrorism.
Last night, Howard left Washington for London, the second and final stop on a nine-day tour, his spokesman said.