• The Associated Press

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Australia is studying whether to participate in a joint missile defense system with Japan and the United States, partly as a bulwark against regional threats such as nuclear-armed North Korea, its defense minister said Tuesday.

Brendon Nelson, who met with Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma in Tokyo, said the study is only in its initial phase, but options include putting interceptor missiles aboard Aegis destroyers. He added it was too early to talk about timing or costs.

Australia is trying to ramp up its military capabilities and is expanding its military personnel to 30,500 troops from 27,500 as part of an overhaul to take greater responsibility for Asian security, Nelson told a news conference. The upgrade is seen as hinging on Australian coordination with its close allies in Tokyo and Washington.

Future coordination may include joint missile defense, he said.

“Australia also supports the development of the ballistic missile defense by Japan in cooperation with the United States of America as a defensive measure specifically for rogue states, such as North Korea,” Nelson said. “We are studying the extent to which we might also be able to . . . provide assistance in that regard.”

During talks with Kyuma, the two agreed to strengthen defense cooperation between their two countries, and work together to diffuse the North Korean nuclear standoff, defense official Akira Kamata said.

Japan plans to send observers to joint military exercises scheduled by Australia and the U.S. later this month, Kamata said.

Japan and the U.S. have been stepping up efforts to build a joint missile defense system following North Korea’s nuclear test in October. North Korea is believed to be developing missiles capable of striking as far away as the United States, but its ability to mount an atomic warhead on the missiles is still doubted.

Nelson said Tuesday the North’s long-range missiles also pose a threat to northern parts of Australia and that North Korea’s destabilizing presence threatens critical trade ties with Japan, South Korea and China.

Australia and Japan signed a security agreement in March that will enable Japanese forces to train alongside Australians for disaster relief and peacekeeping missions, and boost cooperation between the two countries in counterterrorism measures and intelligence sharing.

Australia is also in the process of acquiring three advanced destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system. Should the government choose, they could be equipped with SM-3 missile defense.

Nelson said a final decision on whether to cooperate on a missile shield with Japan and the U.S. would most likely be left for a “future government.”

Prime Minister John Howard, Australia’s second-longest serving leader, has been a strong supporter of Washington’s war on terrorism and international efforts to disarm North Korea. But his conservative government faces elections later this year and his party is lagging in opinion polls.

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