Bush, Howard Cement Alliance as APEC Begins Meeting

U.S. President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard cemented a strong alliance on Wednesday as Asia-Pacific ministers began talks ranging from human security and climate change to trade and economic reform.

Howard promised Australian soldiers would stay alongside U.S. troops in Iraq following a meeting between the close friends, a short cruise, and lunch beside the picture-postcard Sydney Harbour with Australian soldiers and sailors.

"Our commitment to Iraq remains. This is not the time for any proposals of a scaling down of Australian forces," Howard told reporters, pointing to next week's crucial progress report to the U.S. Congress on the American troop surge in Iraq.

"It's historic work, Mr Prime Minister, and it's important work and I appreciate the contribution that the Australians have made," Bush replied to the veteran Australian leader, whose support for the war in Iraq is clouding his re-election hopes.

Bush and Howard signed a treaty giving Canberra improved access to secret U.S. military technology and intelligence, surveillance and joint training. Under the deal, U.S. equipment would also be based in Australia in case of regional disasters.

The treaty was signed at Howard's Sydney office as anti-war activists went to court to challenge police restrictions on mass weekend protests which are expected to draw up to 20,000 people onto the streets against Bush's visit and the Iraq war.

"I have absolutely no doubt that minority groups will engage in a level of violence not previously experienced in Sydney," police chief superintendent Steve Cullen said.

At an anti-Bush rally at Sydney Railway Station on Tuesday, media outnumbered the noisy but peaceful protesters.

Hu at Sheep Farm

Trade liberalisation and climate change top the agenda at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit, and Bush wants the group's 21 economies to agree to a strongly worded pledge to reinvigorate the Doha round of world trade talks.

Bush and Howard discussed trade, the Middle East, North Korea and the rise of China, whose President Hu Jintao is also in Australia and was expected in Sydney for APEC later on Wednesday.

Hu visited a farm near the Australian capital, Canberra, to watch a sheep being shorn. China is Australia's biggest wool export destination and resource market, and -- in contrast to Bush -- Hu has received a warm public reception in Australia.

Ice sculptures of Bush's and Howard's face were placed by protesters near Sydney's famous Harbour Bridge to slowly melt in the sun, symbolising the refusal of the United States and Australia to sign the Kyoto climate pact.

Bush and Howard boarded a luxury cruiser before lunch with armed helicopters hovering overhead and flanked by police on jet skis and in inflatables boats.

"You've been telling me how beautiful Sydney is. I now agree," Bush told Howard.

About 40 trade and foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, gathered at Sydney's main convention centre on Darling Harbour to hammer out a declaration for their leaders to consider at a weekend summit.

Food Safety

A draft of that declaration, obtained by Reuters, says the 21 APEC members will try to develop a more robust approach to strengthening food and product safety standards in the region.

The declaration notes that security is essential to economic growth and, in cooperating on that front, APEC members will "remain closely attuned to the needs of business".

APEC has begun work on a recovery programme to revive trade in the event of a terrorist attack and a set of principles "to help protect the food supply against deliberate contamination".

On trade, APEC will be focusing this year on "behind the border issues", including structural reform, competition policy, strengthening capital markets, combating corruption, promoting good governance, and a more certain legal and regulatory climate.

The draft declaration, however, gives short shrift to a U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.

Police expect weekend protests to turn violent and more than 5,000 police and soldiers have been deployed in central Sydney to guard APEC leaders inside a 5km-long (3 mile) steel-and-concrete wall. Fighter jets patrolled low over the city on Wednesday.