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Abe signs condolence book for former envoy Baker

JIJI, AFP-JIJI

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the U.S. Embassy on Monday to sign the condolence book for Howard Baker, the former ambassador who passed away Thursday.

Abe bowed to a photograph of Baker, who during his career had also been the Senate majority leader, and said to the current ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, “He made great contributions to strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

Kennedy said Baker was an advocate of the bilateral alliance.

Baker served as Washington’s man in Tokyo from 2001 to 2005 during George W. Bush’s first term as president.

He used his broad network of personal connections to support relations between Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Monday that Abe will visit next month and make a rare address to parliament, with Abbott trumpeting their “strong friendship.”

The visit from July 7 to 10 will be the first to Australia by a Japanese leader since 2002. The trip will include visits to Perth and the resource-rich Pilbara mining region.

“Australia and Japan share a strong friendship based on common values, growing commercial and people-to-people links and shared interests,” Abbott said. “We are both committed to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.”

The visit comes less than a month since Abbott was in Tokyo, where the two countries reached a long-awaited free trade deal.

Tokyo and Canberra also agreed to strengthen defense ties, moving toward a possible submarine deal.

“His visit to Australia, accompanied by a senior business delegation, will further strengthen our special relationship and build on the outcomes of our recent meetings in Japan,” Abbott said.

In Canberra, the two countries will sign the free trade deal officially titled the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement.

Under the FTA, more than 97 percent of Australia’s exports to Japan will receive preferential or duty-free access.

Japan is Australia’s second-largest trading partner. Two-way trade was worth almost $65.9 billion in 2012. Australia is a significant supplier of energy and resources to Japan.

Abe is expected to head to Papua New Guinea after his Australian trip. It will be the first time in three decades for a Japanese prime minister to set foot in the Pacific nation.

A huge liquefied natural gas project recently came onstream in Papua New Guinea, with the first shipment of gas from the US$19 billion field destined for Japan.