Australia FM: Asia wants more US engagement

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WASHINGTON (AP) - America is as important as ever for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region and nations in that part of the world want to see more U.S. leadership, not less, Australia's new foreign minister said Friday.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was speaking during her first trip to Washington since a new conservative government took power in Australia two months ago.

Her trip has reaffirmed the U.S.-Australia alliance but has been shadowed by Canberra's own problems with its most important Asian neighbor, Indonesia, over allegations revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden that Australia tapped the phone of the Indonesia's president.

Bishop declined to address those allegations. She told reporters that Australia faces "challenging times ahead" but will work hard on its relations with its Asian neighbor.

Bishop told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, that President Barack Obama's foreign policy rebalance to Asia is "vitally important" and in America's national interest, because of Asia's rising economy.

"U.S. engagement in our region is more in the American national interest than it's ever been in the past, and in my meetings with regional leaders they want to see more U.S. leadership and not less," she said.

Obama is set to visit Asia in April after a four-nation trip in October was canceled because of a political standoff at home. Bishop said Obama would be warmly welcomed in the region.

Analysts say his trip could help counter impressions that the U.S. rebalance is losing steam and that the Obama administration is preoccupied with domestic concerns and high-stakes diplomacy in the Mideast.

Australia's own standing in Asia has been bruised by the claims it tapped the phone of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, pronounced soo-SEE'-loh BAHM'-bahng yoo-doh-YOH'-noh, his wife and eight Indonesian ministers and officials in 2009.

Jakarta has recalled its ambassador, announced it "downgraded" relations with Canberra and suspended cooperation on people-smuggling _ a blow to the efforts to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's efforts to realize an election promise to stop asylum-seekers from many countries traveling by boat to Australia from Indonesia.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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