US 'will help in the Pacific'

President George W Bush has promised New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark that the US will "help in any way we can" to address difficult situations in the Pacific.

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Mr Bush and the prime minister, Helen Clark, met today in the White House's Oval Office, followed by lunch together at the White House.

Ms Clark praised US involvement in Pacific affairs, which has increased after a preoccupation with events in the Middle East.

The Bush administration said last week it is working to boost its diplomatic presence in the Pacific islands after years of inadequate attention.

The US State Department is sending two new staff members to the region to work on issues such as AIDS, the environment and increasing islanders' knowledge of US policies.

The State Department also is helping to set up a May conference in Washington among representatives of 23 Pacific states and regions and senior officials from the US departments of state and defence and from the office of the US trade representative.

"The US is focusing on the problems of the South Pacific," Clark said.

"We've had close coordination."

Clark said she "particularly welcomed the president's support for developing a concept of a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific which we have to look at the Sydney APEC summit" later this year.

She said New Zealand was ready to enter into bilateral trade negotiations with the United States with a view to reaching a free trade agreement.

She said cooperation with the United States included addressing the aftermath of a coup by military leaders who seized power in Fiji in December, as well as problems in the Solomon Islands and on Tonga, where a deadly riot destroyed most of the capital in November after the government appointed by the royal family appeared ready to defer a plan to introduce democratic reforms.

"I assured her that our government would want to help in any way we can," Mr Bush said.

"We understand … some of the countries there have got difficult issues, and it requires New Zealand's leadership with US help to help solve the problems, and Australian help, as well."

The United States has acknowledged the key stabilising roles played by the region's two powerhouses, Australia and New Zealand, which have warned consistently the area could become a haven for money launderers, people and arms smugglers, and even terrorists.

The two also discussed attempts to halt nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Ms Clark said New Zealand was prepared to offer support to any energy package that emerges from the six-party talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons.

Ms Clark's trip to the US is seen as opening a new phrase in bilateral relations, more than 20 years after military alliances were suspended by a law in New Zealand that banned nuclear weapons and vessels from its territory.

Full military ties have yet to be restored but a thaw was signalled last June after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New Zealand Foreign Minister agreed to work on strengthening relations.

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