Defence Minister Marles promises military boost, closer ties with US

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles has promised to boost the power of Australia’s military to avoid a “catastrophic failure of deterrence” in the Indo-Pacific, reassuring the US the new Labor government was totally committed to an ever closer partnership with Washington as the two allies seek to counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

In remarks Beijing is likely to perceive as a snub after it urged Australia last week to jettison close relations with the US, Mr Marles lauded the Australia-US alliance and promised to play a more active role in repelling Chinese influence in the Pacific, where China has sought to grow its economic and security alliances with small island nations.

“Today there is no more important partner to Australia than the United States. The US-Australian alliance has become a cornerstone of Australia’s foreign and security policy,” Mr Marles said in his first speech in Washington as defence Minister in the Albanese government, warning of a “tougher strategic environment”.

“We will make the investment necessary to increase the range and lethality of the Australian Defence Force so that it is able to hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia,” Mr Marles said in a major speech on Monday (Tuesday AEST) at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr Marles kicked off a four-day visit to the US capital by laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia earlier on Monday, and will meet his counterpart Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior US military figures on Wednesday, where he will propose integrating the Australian and US defence forces further.

“I will be proposing specific measures that both sides could adopt to streamline processes and overcome barriers to procurement, investment, information and data sharing systems and export requirements,” Mr Marles said, praising the AUKUS security pact with the US and UK that is set to provide Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

The Biden administration has welcomed the new Labor government’s determination to maintain the previous government’s policy of closer defence, economic and intelligence ties with the US in the face of mounting Chinese aggression.

NATO named China as a “systemic challenge” to European and American security for the first time at its most recent summit in Madrid in June.

China blindsided the two ANZUS partners in May, signing a security pact with Solomon Islands, fuelling fears of a future Chinese base closer to Australian soil.

“We worry about use of force or coercion to advance territorial claims, as is occurring in the South China Sea, and its implications for the any number of places in the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Marles said, a reference to fears China will seek to reincorporate Taiwan into China by force, a longstanding goal of President Xi Jinping.

Hopes of a détente between Canberra and Beijing, which maintains a slew of embargoes on Australian exports as punishment for calling for an inquiry into Covid-19, floundered last week after China’s foreign Minister Wang Yi issued Australia with four demands, including rejecting “manipulation by a third party” – a clear reference to the US.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese dismissed the demands over the weekend after a meeting between foreign Minister Penny Wong and Mr Yi in Bali, the first ministerial meeting between the two nations for three years.

By Adam Creighton