NATO looks at developing closer relations with nations on Pacific rim

NATO is looking at developing closer relations with nations on the Pacific rim, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, as the alliance seeks to broaden its world role, a spokesman said Thursday. "There is a discussion underway amongst allies on the extent to which we need to in someway formalize these relationships," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters.

Although he said there was no detailed idea on how the alliance saw the relationship deepening, Appathurai said he expected discussion to "get more active" in the run up to an alliance summit planned for November in the Latvian capital, Riga. Australia and New Zealand are considering joining NATO's peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan as it expands around the country.

Alliance officials believe developing more regular contacts with those countries and Asian democracies such as Japan and South Korea could facilitate joint peacekeeping operations, intelligence sharing and other military and political cooperation.

New Zealand Defense Minister Phil Goff is expected to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels next week to discuss the prospect of more "structured relations" with the alliance, Appathurai said. The country's Prime Minister Helen Clark visited in November. Her talks looked at placing the 120 New Zealand troops in Afghanistan under NATO command.

Australia is considering sending about 200 troops as part of a NATO mission due to expand in to volatile southern Afghanistan in the middle of 2006.

Last year, Australia signed an agreement with NATO on improving communications on defense and counterterrorism when Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became the first NATO secretary general to visit the country on a trip that also took in New Zealand and Japan. He urged all three countries to contribute troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. However, Appathurai stressed that the talks on deeper ties were at an early stage. "I cannot predict where the discussions will go," he said. "We shouldn't exaggerate it, we're not talking about bringing South Korea into NATO tomorrow."

The United States has been leading calls within NATO for the alliance to develop closer ties with democracies in other parts of the world to boost global security.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a close U.S. ally before he lost elections in 2004, has called for countries such as Japan, Australia and Israel to be invited to join NATO to make the alliance more effective in the fight against terrorism.

NATO's Afghanistan mission, scheduled to grow from 9,000 to 16,000 troops this year, has given the alliance a new role in Asia far from its traditional focus on European territorial defense. The alliance also dispatched troops to Pakistan to help with humanitarian aid after last year's earthquake, reports the AP. I.L.