With national elections looming, voters Down Under are balancing the divergent views of the Howard government's backing of its traditional support for US interests and the federal opposition's calls for a renewed emphasis on Asia On September 11, 2001, Australia's prime minister was preparing to address the US Congress. Instead, he found himself in a Washington bunker with the new US ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer. That terrorism experience marked John Howard and Australia. An empathy based on realism now underpins Australia's relationship with its closest ally. But what does such a powerful US relationship mean for Australia's Asian engagement? As Labor, under opposition leader Mark Latham, seeks to cast the Howard government as at best indifferent to Asia and at worst America's lap-dog, Mr Howard has struck back with a strident defence of its US relationship and of Australia's global role in fighting terrorism and in promoting democracy. Mr Howard and his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, reject suggestions that Australia's American relationship is at the expense of the Asian. Mr Howard said: 'There is nothing incompatible between a close intimate relationship between Australia and the US and the simultaneous development of a strong relationship between our nation and the people of China.' There was no evidence of a choice between Asia or the US when, last October, US and Chinese presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on successive days. At the time, Australia and China agreed on a framework to investigate the feasibility of a free trade agreement. And in February, Australia and the US signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Australia already has FTAs with Singapore and Thailand - part of what trade minister Mark Vaile called 'an ambitious new agenda of trade and economic linkages with Asia'. The Australian government and opposition parties are adopting distinctly different diplomatic approaches to Asia - in style perhaps more than in substance. 'A blinkered focus on Asia and a blind approach to multilateral trade policy,' is how Mr Vaile recently described the policies of former prime minister Paul Keating and Mr Latham. And it was back in 1997, at the height of the Asian financial crisis, that Mr Downer opined: 'We have at times given the impression that we are begging to be embraced by Asia.' It was a clear riposte to Keating-era rhetoric. The Australian government gave the impression of being unfazed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (Asean) longstanding exclusion of the nation from its membership. Unexpectedly, Asean economic ministers recently invited Mr Howard to a free trade summit in Laos in November. They hope it may lead to an FTA. Mr Downer welcomed the invitation but added: 'One of the problems for Australia in its engagement with Asia has been the sense of Australia breathlessly begging to participate rather than presenting itself as a very significant country.' On non-economic fronts, Australia has been engaged with Asean for some time - notably as an active participant in the Asean regional forum, which is the region's principal security and counter-terrorist forum. The vibrant Australian emphasis on Asia of the Keating era was portrayed in part as a cutting of strings with 'mother England', and as the outward-looking policy of a newly matured nation. Yet the US, not Britain, is the dominant western player in the world and it appears Australia and the US have discovered a closer relationship. So, paradoxically, the regional focus of Mr Latham has now been categorised as isolationism, and not just by newspaper commentators. Mr Downer has slammed Labor policies as 'isolationist', citing freedoms in East Timor, new small businesses in the Solomons and a A$25 billion (HK$141 billion) gas deal with China as evidence of regional involvement. How Australia relates to Asia can be answered in economic, cultural and strategic terms - and they all involve the US. Since Mr Keating was in power, Australian foreign policy has become generically more diverse, with counter-terrorism a new high priority within a changing Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in a changed world. It is in the war on terrorism and in intelligence gathering that Asia and the US come together in DFAT thinking, and which has brought Australia into new co-operation with former regional adversaries, not the least Indonesia. Australian and Indonesian police work closely together, and the Australian Federal Police provide assistance to its regional neighbours. In February, Australia and Indonesia co-chaired a counter-terrorism conference in Bali. 'In the war against terrorism, Australia must not downgrade our most important alliance relationship - with the US,' Mr Downer said. 'That alliance is more important for us today than it has been for a generation. [Its critics] would seek to isolate Australia from its alliance partner and from the great issues of our time. This government will not retreat into isolationism.' The Howard government sees the US as vital to regional stability in Asia-Pacific. The economic relationships between Asia, Australia and the US are also entwined. Asia's economic growth depends substantially on exports to the US. And according to DFAT head, Dr Ashton Calvert, the 'favourable outlook for US-China relations provides an optimum context for the advancement of Australian interests in East Asia'. Australia welcomed China's accession to WTO, support for counter-terrorism, and its role in North Korean diplomacy. China is Australia's fastest-growing national market, but the Middle East is the fastest-growing regional market, and the US remains overall Australia's top trading partner. That Chinese dialects now together comprise the major foreign 'language' spoken in Australian homes itself speaks of new cultural affinities beyond the remit of government.