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Howard defends close U.S. alliance

Howard said he hoped to see President Bush in Chile next month.
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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Newly re-elected Australian Prime Minister John Howard has defended his government's close ties to the U.S. administration, saying the alliance improved rather than hindered relations with nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking to CNN Wednesday, Howard said the relationship "added value" to Canberra's dealings with its regional neighbors, and that those nations understood and respected the alliance as a defensive one in Australia's best interests.

Citing China as an example, Howard said his country's relationship with that country had "grown and deepened in the time that I have been prime minister".

"The Chinese understand the history behind the American-Australian alliance. They understand that the relationship is not directed against China," Howard said.

"It is possible to be close to both the United States and the nations of Asia and we have demonstrated that over the last eight and a half years."

The Howard government received domestic and international criticism for its steadfast support of the Bush administration's foreign policy, including sending troops and equipment to the invasion of Iraq.

But the issue did not play a major role in national elections held last Saturday, with Australians convincingly renewing Howard's mandate for a fourth consecutive term of government. (Full story)

Howard defended the decision to support the war, despite the collapse of the weapons of mass destruction justification, saying his view on the war "would not be different if I had my time again."

The Australian leader also lavished praise on U.S. President George W. Bush, saying it was important to send a strong signal in the fight against terrorism.

"I respect him very much both as an individual and as a very strong leader. I think the strength of his stand against terrorism has been very important," Howard said.

President Bush always sent "a very clear-cut strong view."

"In politics that is very important, because often people will vote for you because they respect the strength and consistency of your view even though on a given issue they may not agree with you."

While refusing to comment on the potential future relationship with a John Kerry-led U.S. administration, Howard did say he hoped to see President Bush at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Chile next month.

Howard also expects to hold talks on anti-terrorism cooperation with Indonesia's President-elect Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the APEC talks.

The Prime Minister said police in the two countries had worked together closely in recent years, particularly since the October 2002 Bali nightclub attacks which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

It would be the first meeting between the leaders of Australia and Indonesia since a September 9 bomb attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

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