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Richard Marles defines Australia’s position on defence strategy, funding and AUKUS

He said it aligns with American expectations of Australia as an ally and would become a marker of how seriously Australia is taken by the world.

What this framing indicates is that the Albanese government’s decision in December not to deploy a naval vessel to a multinational task force in the Red Sea was not a one-off.

Rather, it was an early indicator revealing Cabinet’s conviction that Asia is where its interests primarily lie.

The importance of Marles’s speech is that this approach is now a genuine article of policy that has been clearly enunciated to the US, China and Australia’s Asian and Pacific partners.

That makes it harder for a future government to unpick.

While it can never say so baldly, this is also something of a shift away from the Howard doctrine, which held Australia’s US alliance carried with it global obligations.

It also dispatches to the strategic ether the shibboleth that Australia ‘punches above its weight’ in world affairs. Marles has appeared to land on a more realistic assessment of where Australia can best contribute with what limited capabilities it currently has and will have in future

The essence of his announcements about increased defend spending over the forward estimates, along with new capabilities enabling the ADF to project force, is that for a small nation such as Australia, military power can be burnished only if it is apparent and concentrated.

This does not mean ruling out Australia becoming a US auxiliary in a potential conflict with China. Marles continues to speak of ‘impactful projection’. This is old wine in new bottles, repurposing the old Cold War policy of ‘forward defence’ about keeping the threat from Asia as far away as possible.

Still, the Minister – even if inadvertently – also continues to highlight the conundrum at the heart of Australian defence policy. He talks of a strategic situation that has deteriorated in the last 12 months, but the military capability to meet those very circumstances is still nearly a decade away.

And it is surely a brave Minister indeed who can claim, as he did, that Labor has turned AUKUS from ‘a concept…into reality’, when so many imponderables and challenges abound. Not only in delays besetting US and UK shipbuilding, but in the stringent conditions the US Congress has put on a future administration to actually transfer nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. America has its Plan B. Does Australia?

Marles stressed this is the biggest rise in defence expenditure since Australia went from 2 per cent to 5 per cent at the time of the Korean War. He will be hoping to escape from the shadow of Robert Menzies, whose grand hopes then for an Australia in a state of rolling defence preparedness fell foul of bureaucratic stagnation and a democracy distracted by a welter of other priorities.

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