Australian PM Opens Week-Long Asian Tour

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has departed on a week-long Asian tour that includes stops in Japan, South Korea and China.Ms. Gillard is scheduled to visit areas of Japan on Wednesday that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. She plans to meet with senior Japanese officials, including Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Naoto Kan.The prime minister is expected give Mr. Kan assurances that Australia will remain a reliable energy supplier, despite increasing iron ore and coal demands from China. Japan faces months of electricity shortages due to major quake damage to its nuclear power grid. Its energy needs are expected to intensify as it begins a massive post-disaster reconstruction program expected to take years.Ms. Gillard will later visit South Korea and China for talks on regional trade, energy supplies and human rights.

Prime Minister Gillard said Tuesday she has “a high degree of optimism” that talks on bilateral free trade with South Korea will end this year. She said she wants to inject momentum into long-standing free trade talks with China.Ms. Gillard’s visit to China is expected to focus largely on business, including investment and efforts to strengthen trade already valued at more than $50 billion annually. But she told Australian television Tuesday she will raise human rights issues with Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.Chinese police have in recent weeks arrested dissidents and Internet writers. Authorities have also imposed reporting restrictions on Western journalists in Beijing, as part of a push to prevent public protests like those launched in the Middle East and North Africa this year.On the last leg of her overseas trip, Prime Minister Gillard will attend the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29 in London. – Voanews