Visiting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged Thurday that Canberra will continue to be a “reliable supplier of energy” to Japan, while expressing her condolences over the March 11 disaster to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Gillard will become the first foreign leader to visit the quake-tsunami area.
“We were pleased to support you in the immediate aftermath of the crisis and we intend to stay true friends as Japan rebuilds and recovers,” Gillard said during a joint news conference with Kan at the prime minister’s office.
“We will continue to be a reliable supplier of energy into the future and particularly now as the people of Japan need new energy sources because of the nuclear emergency which was occasioned by the tsunami and earthquake,” Gillard said.
During the summit, Kan and Gillard confirmed Australia’s commitment to supply natural resources, including liquefied natural gas, amid the ongoing crisis at the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. According to the Foreign Ministry, Australia is Japan’s No. 1 supplier of energy, amounting to 22 percent.
Gillard voiced understanding that bilateral talks on an economic partnership agreement will be pushed back because of Japan’s efforts to rebuild the nation.
“We understand that for the prime minister and the government of Japan, at this time, the work that is necessary to help the Japanese people overcome the impact of the natural disaster . . . has been first and foremost the work of the government,” Gillard said.
“I very much welcome the prime minister’s indication that at the earliest possible opportunity we will resume discussion of the free-trade agreement,” she said.
Opposition in Japan to the liberalization of sensitive farm products has so far prevented Tokyo and Canberra from concluding an economic partnership agreement.
Prior the meeting, Gillard had expressed her intention to strengthen defense cooperation especially in dealing with natural disasters. Japan and Australia have sent military personnel to deal with various global disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami and the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in February.
And last May, Japan and Australia signed a bilateral defense logistics agreement, for which the Foreign Ministry has expressed hope for strengthened bilateral cooperation in areas including disaster relief activities.
Within a few days of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Australia dispatched a team of 75 members on a search-and-rescue mission to Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture.
Canberra also sent three of its four military planes to transport Self-Defense Forces troops and supplies as well as special pumps to cool the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant. A donation of 10 million Australian dollars (about ¥800 million) was also made by the Australian government.
Gillard plans to meet with various government officials and lawmakers during her visit. She plans to travel Saturday to Minamisanriku before continuing her Asian journey to South Korea and China.