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In shrinking world, even the Red Sea is part of our ‘region

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23 December 2023, The Australian, by Gerard Henderson

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s 2023 Lowy Lecture on Tuesday was both newsworthy and considered. Which makes one omission from the address notable.

His central point was that “without any doubt, Australia’s future security and prosperity will be defined by the strength and success of our engagement in the region we call home”. And he went on to praise former Labor prime ministers John Curtin, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

The Prime Minister attributed this famous five with the “anchoring of Australia’s strategic policy in our region”. As a result, “through the 80s and 90s, a period of profound change around the world, Australia established the enduring geopolitical architecture of the ­region”.

Now, Albanese is a rusted on Labor barracker. So it’s understandable why he failed to mention any of the post-war Liberal Party prime ministers – Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, William McMahon, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison in this context. All of whom played their role in focusing Australian foreign policy on the region and supporting the Australian-American alliance in practice as well as in theory

Here special note should go to the Menzies government for the 1957 Australia-Japan commerce agreement which sparked Australian trade with the Asia Pacific – despite the fact that the two nations had been at war just over a decade earlier.

The Labor Party is very tribal, in spite of its differing factions. So it’s not surprising that a Labor prime minister would overlook the achievements of his Coalition predecessors. The omission of Ben Chifley, who was prime minister between Curtin’s death in 1945 and his death in 1951, is surprising. However, it can be explained by the fact that his main international achievements turned on Australia’s involvement in the international financial system.

Then there is the missing person. Namely, Julia Gillard. And yet it was Gillard who announced that initially some 250 US Marines would do six-monthly training rotations in Australia, based in the Northern Territory. This was subsequently exceeded in numbers and the US Air Force was given ­additional access to Australia.

The decision was announced by prime minister Gillard and US president Barack Obama in Canberra on November 10, 2011. To supporters of the Australian/American Alliance, this agreement strengthened security in the Asia Pacific region.

The context for Albanese’s remarks in the Lowy Lecture was the soon-to-be-announced confirmation that Australia would not be sending a warship to the multi­national task force in the Red Sea.

So far, the US has three destroyers in the naval component of Operation Prosperity Guardian aimed at preventing attacks by Houthi rebels, armed and financed by Iran, from attacking commercial and military ships in this important waterway. Britain has sent a destroyer and France a frigate. The US has also moved the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and its naval escorts into the nearby Gulf of Aden.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has acknowledged that the US requested a warship. Instead, Australia will deploy six naval personnel to Bahrain where OPG is based and provide additional support to the 39-nation strong Combined Maritime Forces contingent operating out of Bahrain.

No doubt, Australia’s contribution to the OPG will be appreciated. But it is a long way short of what the US wanted and, no doubt, Britain and France would have appreciated. The current state of Australia’s naval capacity is such that probably only one of Australia’s three relatively up-to-date Hobart destroyers would have been suitable for the task.

In a surprise move, on December 15, Rear Admiral Christopher Smith declared that the Australian Navy was “ready to support any requirements that the government will ask of us”. But it was not to be – with the idea being formally ruled out by Marles on December 21.

There is little doubt that the Australian Navy is under-equipped – due to a lack of expenditure since the defeat of the Howard government in 2007 (particularly during the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd administration) and some poor equipment decisions by the Department of Defence over many years.

However, the fact that the US Navy wanted an Australian warship in Operation Prosperity Guardian speaks for itself. The two entities have worked very well together in the recent past.

The terrorist attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, which commenced after Hamas terrorists broke a ceasefire to brutally attack southern Israel on October 7, were followed by Israel’s retaliation. However, the Hamas and Houthi terrorist operations are financed by Iran. As is Hezbollah, which is firing rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon.

The Prime Minister’s lot is not an easy one. Clearly, he is presiding over a cabinet and a party which is divided on the Israel/Hamas war. Some believe that Israel is entitled to demand that Hamas release its hostage and surrender, while others want an end to hostilities without necessarily Hamas being wiped out.

Australia’s foreign policy is, understandably, contested. For example, on these pages last Thursday two well-qualified comm­entators – Peter Leahy and Michael Shoebridge – disagreed in a thoughtful way. The former supports the Albanese government’s decision not to send a warship, the latter opposes it.

The Prime Minister’s position is that a decision of Australia to focus on the region is consistent with Labor’s position going back to Curtin in 1942. This overlooks the fact that incumbent Australian governments have supported the nation’s allies when they were involved in conflicts overseas which potentially affected Australia’s sea lanes and, later, flight paths.

Labor backed Australia’s commitment to support Britain in World War I. It was the Menzies government that sent forces to support Britain against Nazi Germany in World War II. And the Hawke Labor government supported Operation Desert Storm.

Sure, Australia is a nation in the Indo-Pacific region. But Australia is also a trader in goods and services which relies on secure sea and flight paths for its survival. The free movement of shipping in the Red Sea is important to Australia’s physical and economic security.

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Article source: The Australian/Gerard Henderson 23.12.2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000