WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday pledged to New Zealand's prime minister that the United States would "help in any way we can" to address difficult situations in the Pacific.
Bush and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark met in the Oval Office, followed by lunch together at the White House.
Clark praised U.S. involvement in Pacific affairs that has increased after a preoccupation with events in the Middle East. The Bush administration said last week it is working to boost its diplomatic presence in the Pacific islands after years of inadequate attention.
The State Department is sending two new staff members to the region to work on issues such as AIDS, the environment and increasing islanders' knowledge of U.S. policies.
The State Department also is helping to set up a May conference in Washington among representatives of 23 Pacific states and regions and senior officials from the U.S. departments of state and defense and from the office of the U.S. trade representative.
"The U.S. is focusing on the problems of the South Pacific," Clark said. "We've had close coordination."
She said this cooperation included addressing the aftermath of a coup by military leaders who seized power in Fiji in December, as well as issues in the Solomon Islands and on Tonga, where a deadly riot destroyed most of the capital in November after the government appointed by the royal family was going to defer a plan to introduce democratic reforms.
"I assured her that our government would want to help in any way we can," Bush said. "We understand ... some of the countries there have got difficult issues, and it requires New Zealand's leadership with U.S. help to help solve the problems, and Australian help, as well."
The two also discussed expanding trade, both within the Asia-Pacific region and globally, and attempts to halt nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.