The Pentagon has said over 20 countries have joined its coalition to protect Red Sea shipping from Yemen-based Houthis, who have been attacking Western vessels in solidarity with the Palestinians. However, a key US ally, Australia, has bailed from this US-led alliance.
The Australian federal government has defended its choice not to send an Australian warship to the Red Sea to guard essential shipping lanes. However, it has since come under a diplomatic storm, with the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, accusing the Anthony Albanese government of weakness.
However, after a lot of dilly-dallying on the issue, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese finally broke the silence and affirmed that there had been no request from the United States and that Australia was contributing to the multinational naval force headed by the US by deploying six additional ADF members, 9 News reported.
“We work very closely with our American friends, and if Peter Dutton wants to continue to snipe at the sideline at decisions that the Australian government has made with the support of the Australian Defence Force, that’s a matter for him,” the Prime Minister clarified.
Regarding turning down its ally’s request, the Australian PM said, ”There has been no request on a government-to-government level. The US certainly understands that our priority and our role in the region is very significant.”
The government contends that naval priorities are closer to home, in the Pacific and South China Sea, where the Royal Australian Navy has a lengthy deployment history to Middle Eastern waters.
However, the Coalition has urged the government to change its mind and join the multinational force, arguing that it is in Australia’s best interests as trade routes through the Red Sea are vital to the country.
The Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group which is known to be backed by Iran, has been attacking ships trying to enter Israel with drone and air strikes since December 9. The group has intensified its attacks on Israel and vessels operating in the region in an attempt to force the Israeli forces to stop the bombardment of Gaza, which has claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people since October.
So far, two US proxies, namely Australia and Spain, have rejected US request to send warships to the Red Sea to counter Yemen.
Looks like the "coalition" against Yemen is failing before getting started. pic.twitter.com/2yBP1Y6ONl
— Hassan Mafi (@thatdayin1992) December 21, 2023
The Red Sea is south of the Suez Canal, the most significant channel connecting Europe to Asia and Africa. Ships now have to circumnavigate Africa to reach Yemen, which adds three to four weeks to their voyage time due to the potential of attack at the southernmost sea point.
So far, more than 100 ships have changed their course, resulting in an additional three to four weeks of work and significant financial losses for the affected companies. Due to these delays, it is anticipated that energy and oil prices will rise globally and that global freight shipments of other items will also have to slow down, causing reverberations far and wide.
The Houthis assert that they will carry on attacking ships in solidarity with the Palestinians. The United States has two aircraft carriers deployed in the region and several auxiliary vessels and warships. US Navy’s USS Carney has been instrumental in shooting down incoming Houthi projectiles on multiple occasions. That has not, however, dissuaded the militants.
This has forced the US to cobble up a regional alliance to fight the Houthis relentless attacks and what they call “piracy” in the region. “We’ve had over 20 nations now sign on to participate” in the coalition, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder told journalists on December 22.
Calling on the Houthis to end the attacks, he said, “Coalition forces will serve as a highway patrol of sorts, patrolling the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to respond to — and assist as necessary — commercial vessels that are transiting this vital international waterway.” Since 20 countries have joined the effort, Australian reluctance has been keenly watched and internally debated.
Australia’s Alliance & Defiance
Australia’s position on the coalition has fuelled claims of deceit and raised questions about Australia’s naval readiness. The Coalition immediately denounced it, calling it feeble and inconsistent with AUKUS allies.
China’s Global Times newspaper also applauded it, citing it as proof that Australia had “finally stepped out of the US shadow,” causing an embarrassment to Washington and Canberra alike.
However, this is not the first time Canberra has towed a line defying its most crucial ally, the United States. Despite signing a landmark agreement with AUKUS and strengthening its relationship with the US to combat the threat posed by China, Australia has retained its strategic independence.
Australia, for one, continues to prioritize its security challenges over the ones in the Red Sea. For instance, a senior Australian political figure said, “Australia is facing “an increasingly challenging strategic environment that places greater demand on ADF resources closer to home. As a result, the Australian Defence Force will reduce its naval presence in the Middle East to enable more resources to be deployed in our region.”
Bipartisan acknowledgment in recent history has shown that Australia needs to concentrate on the Indo-Pacific region at a time when China is asserting itself more in the South and East China Seas.
In his defense strategy update, released on July 1, 2020, Scott Morrison stated that while Australia may remain “prepared to make military contributions outside our immediate region where it is in our national interest to do so, including in support of US-led coalitions,” our foremost ally should not take this for granted.
Morrison concluded that Australia was best positioned in the Indo-Pacific, which he claimed was quickly becoming the focus of the dominant global contest of our age after years of attention being paid to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under the current Albanese administration, Canberra has been particularly concerned about the growing number of incidents involving Chinese and Philippine ships in the South China Sea. Australia strengthened its diplomatic ties with the Philippines this year and started conducting cooperative naval patrols there.
The Australian government has also expressed dissatisfaction over what it describes as an “unsafe and unprofessional interaction” that occurred in November when HMAS Toowoomba was in Japan’s exclusive economic zone with a Chinese naval destroyer, clearly indicating that the challenge posed by Beijing is only becoming more significant over time.
Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Toowoomba and a P-8A maritime patrol aircraft are participating.
Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio del Pilar & BRP Davao del Sur & 5 PH Air… pic.twitter.com/heazuJS6I1
— Indo-Pacific News – Geo-Politics & Defense News (@IndoPac_Info) November 25, 2023
Moreover, Australia’s alliance with the United States has not been unconditional. For instance, Australian defense minister Richard Marles said in March that his country had not guaranteed the United States that Canberra would stand behind its ally in any future conflict involving Taiwan in exchange for American nuclear-powered submarines.
The statement was significant given that it came after US President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom announced on March 13 that Canberra would purchase nuclear-powered Virginia-class attack submarines from the United States to upgrade its fleet. “Absolutely not, and I couldn’t be more unequivocal than that,” Marles told Australian Broadcasting Corp’s “Insiders” news program on March 19.
“I want to make it clear that the moment that there is a flag on the first of those Virginia-class submarines in the early 2030s is the moment that that submarine will be under the complete control of the Australian government of the day and again, no one would have expected that to be any different. I mean, that is the basis upon which this is happening,” he added.
To maintain “strategic ambiguity,” Australia, like the United States, refuses to state how it would respond if China attacked Taiwan. Although the two states have recently attempted a diplomatic thaw, Australia has signaled that it is unwilling to let its guard down.
Against that backdrop, the verdict from Australia is clear: the US-led coalition will have its support but not its ships.