Obama to renew, strengthen ties in Australia

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HONOLULU (AP) — President Barack Obama turns from economic to security concerns in the Asia-Pacific region as he travels to Australia, finally making a long-delayed visit to the longtime and increasingly important U.S. ally.

Obama twice last year canceled visits to Australia, once to stay in town to lobby for passage of his health-care bill, and again in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The third time’s the charm as Obama was setting out for the capital of Canberra Tuesday morning from Hawaii, where he’s spent the last several days hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Because Air Force One has to cross the international date line, Obama won’t arrive in Australia until mid-afternoon local time Wednesday for a one-and-a-half-day visit.

Kim Beazley, Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., said Obama’s mere appearance was “enormously important” to Australians. And for the U.S., Australia’s geographic location in the burgeoning Asia-Pacific region makes the longtime ally an increasingly important one as China’s might grows.

After arriving Wednesday afternoon, Obama will meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the two will hold a joint news conference. On Thursday, Obama addresses the Australian Parliament before traveling to Darwin, on Australia’s remote northern coast, where U.S. and Australian forces were killed in a Japanese attack during World War II. Obama will pay respects at a memorial to the dead and visit a military base in Darwin, where he’ll speak to Australian troops and U.S. Marines.

The visit comes as the U.S. and Australia mark 60 years as defense treaty partners, and Obama is expected to announce plans to expand that relationship, including positioning U.S. military equipment in Australia, increasing access to bases and conducting more joint exercises and training.

The moves would effectively counter an increasingly aggressively China, which claims dominion over vast areas of the Pacific that the U.S. considers international waters. China has alarmed smaller Asian neighbors by reigniting old territorial disputes, including confrontations over the South China Sea. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the goal is to signal that the U.S. and Australia will stick together in face of any threats.

From Australia, Obama will head to Indonesia for a security summit with Asian nations before finishing his nine-day trip and returning to Washington on Nov. 20.