After a surprise visit to Iraq, US President George W. Bush arrived in Sydney late Tuesday for a regional summit with the city locked down in the biggest security operation in Australian history.
North Korea emerged as a key focus of the meeting after the top US nuclear negotiator said the communist state had to do more to dismantle its atomic programme to be taken off a US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Trade and climate change also figure high on the agenda for the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
If the US leader was hoping his visit to Sydney would give him a break from the pressures of the bloody insurgency in Iraq, however, he was destined to be disappointed.
An established anti-war group called the Stop Bush Coalition called a small “unwelcoming ceremony” in Sydney to kick off a series of protests culminating in a march by up to 20,000 people on Saturday.
Police have launched a court battle against the march, saying it poses a serious security threat if it is allowed to proceed past the US consulate in the city centre.
“Our intelligence tells us there is an intent to act violently,” said state Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.
Some 3,500 police and 1,500 counter-terrorism and special forces soldiers have been deployed to maintain security, while parts of the city have been blocked off by a 5.5-kilometre (3.4-mile)-long steel and concrete fence.
Prime Minister John Howard is a strong supporter of the US leader, but an opinion poll published here showed most Australians believe Bush is the worst US president in history.
The APEC conference brings Bush together with 20 other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Hu Jintao, and global hotspots will dominate talks on the sidelines of the summit.
The chief US negotiator on North Korea, Christopher Hill, told reporters that while the US was considering whether to take North Korea off its terror list, the reclusive nation had to take more steps on denuclearisation.
“We agreed in February we would begin the process of taking them off,” Hill said after briefing his Japanese counterpart here.
“We’re working on that basis but to get off there will be additional steps that are needed to be taken. They know this.”
Bush, Howard and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are to meet Saturday over breakfast for their first trilateral summit, set to focus on security issues including North Korea and China.
Japan and Australia signed a security pact in March, Tokyo’s first such agreement with any country besides its main ally, the US.
China, meanwhile, tried to block a meeting over its human rights record timed to coincide with Hu’s visit, but state officials said they had rejected the demand.
Chinese embassy officials reportedly said the meeting being hosted in the New South Wales state parliament would harm bilateral relations between China and Australia.
Meanwhile, climate change campaigners staged protests for a third straight day calling for APEC action to cut the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. APEC groups the world’s three worst polluters — the US, China and Russia.
APEC members account for almost half of global trade and calls have gone out in the run-up to the summit for urgent action to break the deadlock over World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations.
Australia’s Trade Minister Warren Truss met with US Trade Representative Susan Schwab and urged Washington to send a “powerful signal” on cutting farm subsidies to give the protracted global trade talks a much-needed push.