President Bush today reassured Australia and apprehensive Asian allies that the end of the Cold War and U.S. withdrawal from bases in the Philippines will not leave them abandoned.
"We know that our security is inextricably linked to stability across the Pacific," Bush told a special session of the Australian Parliament, "and we will not put that stability and security at risk."
The pledge came as the Administration moved toward an agreement with Singapore that would give American military forces wider access to ports and runways in the strategically important city-state.
In disclosing the progress toward the new accord, a senior U.S. official said the plan for increased American military presence in Singapore represents "a way of demonstrating that the U.S. is going to remain active" in the region.
Administration officials traveling with Bush said the agreement, which would allow U.S. F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft to use new Asian bases, could be signed as early as this weekend when the President arrives in Singapore.
At the same time, the President signaled for the first time that the United States will throw its support behind a controversial plan to break a stalemate on international trade in the Uruguay Round of talks.
The tentative embrace of the proposal for freer trade appeared designed in part to mute sharp criticism here--including a march today by several thousand Australian farmers--of U.S. grain subsidies that have hurt the Australian economy.
In talks with Prime Minister Paul Keating, however, Bush rejected a request that the United States unilaterally abandon that export-enhancement program, which has allowed American farmers to take over traditional Australian markets.
"While I don't like having to use these remedies," Bush declared in his address, "I will safeguard the interests of American farmers."
At a news conference later, he rejected the suggestion that by maintaining such subsidies, he will appear hypocritical when he travels to Tokyo next week to demand that Japan reduce its barriers to trade.
"We've never said we're totally pure," he said in a joint appearance with Keating. "We are working toward freer and fairer trade, and certainly the Japanese should be working toward freer and fairer trade."
Despite that tough talk, however, Bush gave comparatively little attention to efforts to expand U.S. exports, which he had described in advance of the trip as crucial to the creation of American jobs.
Indeed, he scorned as politically motivated the contention of congressional Democrats that his trip will be a success only if he wins clear concessions from the Japanese. And privately, U.S. officials have expressed growing qualms that by describing the trip as a quest for jobs, the Administration may have raised expectations unwisely.
And the broader effort by Bush to renew a U.S. commitment to Pacific Rim security represented a new bid to answer what the President described as a spirit of unease in the region.
In seeking temporarily to shift focus from tensions over trade, Bush invoked a broader spirit of cooperation to insist that the United States had not turned against its allies.
"We intend to remain engaged no matter whatever the changing security arrangements of our time," Bush told the Australian Parliament in the first major address of a trade-oriented trip that will also take him to Singapore, South Korea and Japan.
Keating and other Australian officials have voiced concern that Washington's confrontational tactics and its pursuit of a North American Free Trade Agreement could leave the world divided into rival American, European and Asian trading blocs.
But as Bush spoke instead of American security interests, one senior U.S. official insisted: "The fear that the Australians have is not just that the world would break into three blocs, but that they're at the end of one and would be left out."
The apprehension felt by Australians about changes in the U.S. military posture in a post-Soviet Union world is shared around the Pacific Rim, with governments suddenly wary of an America unconstrained and one that might turn inward.
While insisting that the United States will not leave the region behind, one senior official said, Bush intends in part to outline for U.S. allies how the United States might "adjust the form of our commitment to meet the new circumstances."
With the expected accord with Singapore, the official suggested, the Administration hopes at least in small part to address one of those circumstances--its commitment by the end of next year to withdraw all U.S. military forces from bases in the Philippines.
The official declined to discuss the exact terms of the new agreement and cautioned that even with an expansion of the U.S. military presence, Singapore is "not going to be another Subic," a reference to the soon-to-be-closed American naval base in the Philippines.
But Administration sources said the accord is expected to go considerably beyond a maintenance agreement signed by the United States and Singapore last year in order to allow U.S. ships and warplanes to be based temporarily in the city-state.
Because Singapore is located along strategic shipping channels, the arrangement could provide U.S. forces a key staging point to protect Asia's access to supplies of oil from the Mideast.
In return, the sources said, Singapore would be provided access to the F-15 and F-16 warplanes for training missions. One official described that relationship as a harbinger of "more cooperative military relationships" and its allies in the region.
As the President spoke of security, however, the Australian focus remained on trade, with Keating, his Cabinet and Australian farmers voicing sharp complaints about the impact of American grain subsidies.
The assistance, provided under the six-year-old U.S. export-enhancement program, has allowed American farmers to sell wheat to China and other countries at prices that have driven their Australian competitors from the market.
Because of such unfair trade practices, declared Graham Blight, head of the Australian Farmers Union, "we have the same problem with the U.S. as the U.S. has with the Japanese." Australian farmers say the U.S. subsidies cost them $760 million a year in lost income.