WASHINGTON (AP) _ New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Bush are showing signs of a burgeoning diplomatic friendship: Rudd calls the president "George," while Bush describes Rudd to reporters as a "fine lad" and a "straightforward fella."
The two leaders, who met Friday at the White House, are playing down the signs that Rudd has distanced his government from some of the pro-U.S. policies of his immediate predecessor, John Howard.
Bush said he understood Rudd's decision to withdraw Australia's combat troops from Iraq, and he praised Rudd's commitment to the fight in Afghanistan. U.S.-Australian "friendship will strengthen and endure under the leadership of Kevin Rudd," Bush said. "I don't see differences when it comes to foreign policy."
The leaders also tried to strike a delicate balance on China, voicing displeasure with Beijing's crackdown on Tibetan protesters without alienating a crucial economic and political partner. They urged China's leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
"It is absolutely clear that there are human rights abuses in Tibet," said Rudd. "It's clear-cut; we need to be upfront and absolutely straight about what's going on."
Bush said he told Chinese President Hu Jintao this week that "it's in his country's interest" that top Chinese leaders meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama.
Rudd, a China expert who wants stronger economic ties with Beijing, said leaders should not "shilly-shally" in their assessment of abuses in Tibet and surrounding regions. He said he would raise the matter during his visit to China next month, adding, "We recognize China's sovereignty over Tibet."
Both Rudd and Bush also recognize that they need China, a growing military and economic power and a veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council. Rudd is eager to conclude a free trade agreement with Australia's most important trading partner, while Bush is counting on China for help in dealing with North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.
Rudd is seen in Washington as a "solidly pro-U.S. alliance figure," said Michael Green, Bush's former senior adviser on Asia.
"The one area where people have raised eyebrows about Rudd is on China policy," said Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "He's going to want to make it clear that the U.S. alliance remains the bedrock and Australia is not going wobbly on China."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.