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Australia will deploy six Defence Force personnel to a US-led operation guarding against Iran-backed rebel attacks on commercial trade routes but will not send a ship or plane, a call Opposition Leader Peter Dutton claimed would be “welcomed by Hamas”.
The six will join Operation Prosperity Guardian in the new year and Australia will also double from five to 10 its staff officers involved in a wider Middle East maritime operation.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin welcomes Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles in October.Credit: AP
The Coalition has castigated Labor in recent days for choosing not to send a warship to the region, where Houthi rebels have been wreaking havoc in key shipping routes facilitating the transfer of oil, humanitarian aid and other products.
The Yemen-based, Iranian-backed armed group is protesting against Israel’s military action in Gaza, which was prompted by the October 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas, an entity also supported by Iran.
“We won’t be sending a ship or a plane,” Marles said on Sky News on Thursday.
“That said, we will be almost tripling our contribution to the Combined Maritime Forces. We need to be really clear around our strategic focus and our strategic focus is our region – the north-east Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Pacific.“
Dutton said the decision not to provide more substantive support made the Albanese government “an international laughing stock”.
“It takes a lot of effort with a special blend of weakness and incompetence for our prime minister to turn his back on our closest ally, a decision that could only be welcomed by Hamas [a listed terrorist organisation]. Doesn’t that say it all?” the opposition leader, who is on leave, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“The decision should be reversed and our integrity restored.”
The Albanese government has stressed the US request for help included a call for personnel, which it has provided.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday emphasised the United States’ keenness for Australia’s “diplomatic and public support”.
But opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said Albanese’s claim didn’t “pass muster”.
“Does anybody really think that the Australian government has some effective diplomatic back channel to the Houthi rebels in Yemen?” Birmingham said.
“If [there are] not operational limitations, then explain why it is that Australia is missing in action in responding to this request and this challenge.”
Birmingham said Labor’s reluctance to send a ship to the Middle East exposed Australia to a perception it did not have adequate military resources to free up a ship.
Australia sent HMAS Toowoomba to the Persian Gulf in January 2020 amid growing tensions between the US and Iran. Then defence minister Linda Reynolds later that year announced the Defence Force would “reduce its naval presence in the Middle East to enable more resources to be deployed to our region”.
Michael Shoebridge, the director of think tank Strategic Analysis Australia, said the government was wrong not to take the Houthi threat more seriously as it had the potential to inflate global oil prices.
“This policy mindset that Australia just needs to focus on our near region – unfortunately, the world keeps crowding in on us,” he said, noting the Ukraine war’s impact on energy and food prices.
The Houthi episode also exposed the “small and vulnerable” state of Australia’s navy, Shoebridge suggested.
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