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Terror checks for all air passengers

By Tom Allard, Foreign Affairs Reporter in Bangkok
October 22, 2003

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Prime Minister John Howard, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and US President George Bush. Photo: Penny Bradfield

An Australian push for an anti-terrorist aviation alert system across the Asia-Pacific region was endorsed yesterday as the APEC summit - dominated by security issues - wound up in Bangkok.

Pacific Rim countries will share a database of all passengers flying between their airports. The details of every passenger will be forwarded to the destination country and a "red flag" will flash whenever a person has a criminal history or any suspected link to terrorism.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, hailed the summit as an "excellent meeting". It also endorsed a new US plan to resolve the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The conclusion of the talks provides the backdrop for the arrival today in Australia of US President George Bush and the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao.

Mr Howard said of the APEC agreement: "It met all the expectations of Australia. It says quite a lot about terrorism. It says a lot about economic growth. It says a great deal about North Korea."

In the wake of the September 11 attacks and concerns about aviation security, the APEC nations committed to the advance passenger information network and the pooling of information on "people of concern".

Mr Howard called it a "powerful counter-terrorism tool".

There were also initiatives to restrict the trade in shoulder-fired missiles and to a renewed focus on building capacity to combat bio-terrorism attacks. The US and Australia also devoted $US6.4 million to finance the counter-terrorism ability of poorer APEC nations, some of which are the hub of the fight against terrorism.

Mr Howard said APEC was Australia's most important international body, taking a thinly-veiled swipe at the United Nations in the process. APEC was a forum that was "about the present and the future, rather than the past", he said.

As for his contact at the summit with the frequent Australia critic, Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Howard said he shook his hand but did not exchange words. "I don't intend to give any kind of political valedictory about him," he said.

Dr Mahathir, who retires at the end of this month, drew international criticism this week when he claimed Jews "rule the world by proxy".

The summit was notable for addressing, for the first time, the push to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. As reports emerged that North Korea had fired a second surface-to-ship missile in two days and had reprocessed 2500 spent fuel rods, Australia's idea of a non-aggression pledge to the regime won support at the summit.

In his statement at the conclusion of the summit on behalf of all 21 Pacific Rim economies in APEC, Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, said a peaceful resolution to the Korean crisis was needed and, in a conciliatory gesture to the North, said APEC recognised its "security concerns".

"We welcome efforts to address these security concerns," Dr Sinawatra said, a reference to the plan - put forward by the US - for the multinational security guarantee to North Korea involving the US, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, all APEC members.

It remains unclear whether North Korea will be lured to the negotiating table to recommence six-party talks that collapsed in August with no breakthrough.

Mr Howard said he would raise North Korea with President Hu Jintao tomorrow in Canberra, viewing China's advocacy as the key to enticing North Korea to agree to further talks.

Mr Howard held two meetings with President Hu Jintao at APEC, both of them dominated by North Korea and trade.

The Herald revealed this week that Australia and China would sign an economic co-operation agreement and launch a feasibility study into a free trade agreement this week.

Australian officials said there was little disagreement on the statements on terrorism or North Korea but there was vigorous debate about APEC's position on trade.

Japan and South Korea, which heavily subside their farmers, were reluctant to recommit to the elimination of agricultural subsidies but were eventually persuaded after Mr Howard pointed out that to do otherwise would be backsliding on the previous leaders' statement from last year's summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.

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