Australia is yet to decide whether it will honour a request from the United States to send a warship to the Red Sea amid ongoing tensions in the Middle East where Israel is waging war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The request came from the US Navy, which wants the vessel to join a international task force, following rising attacks on ships by Iran-backed militia trying to disrupt supplies.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said the federal government had yet to respond to the US request.
“We’ll consider this request in due course, but I would note that the focus of our naval efforts right now are on our immediate region,” he told reporters in Darwin.
“In all of the decisions that we make, Australia’s national interests will be front and centre.”
Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite said the government was working with the chiefs of the defence force and navy to see whether the ship could be provided.
“We’ve certainly had a tradition of being involved in allied operations where we’re upholding international laws and trying to secure peace and stability, particularly related to ongoing commerce,” he said.
Australia has had a presence in the Middle East, including five personnel in the region as part of an allied force aimed at securing shipping lanes, he said.
The Pentagon continued to consult closely with international allies “on implementing a maritime task force”, press secretary Air Force Major General Pat Ryder said.
The Iran-aligned Houthis have waded into the Israel-Hamas conflict, which has spread around the Middle East since October 7, attacking vessels in vital shipping lanes and firing drones and missiles at Israel.
The Houthis have declared all ships heading to Israel will be targeted regardless of their nationality, saying it was a show of support for Palestinians.
They have vowed to continue until Israel stops its offensive on the Gaza Strip.
The opposition would support the government if it agreed to the US request, Liberal senator Jane Hume said.
The confirmation of the US request comes after Australia made a rare break with Washington to vote in favour of an immediate humanitarian ceasefire at the United Nations.
The move has been criticised by Jewish groups in Australia, the Israeli ambassador and the opposition as the resolution didn’t mention Hamas.
Mr Marles said Australia had been consistent in its position on the conflict.
“We want to see humanitarian concerns placed front and centre … we’ve also been really clear that any ceasefire cannot be one-sided,” he said.
“We have taken that position because we seek to advocate on the part of humanitarian concerns and we seek to advocate for the protection of innocent lives, be they Israeli or Palestinian.”
The only sustainable ceasefire is one where Hamas – designated a terrorist organisation by Australia – releases all its hostages and lays down its arms, opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham says.
“The UN motion that passed calling for ceasefire without even mentioning Hamas was a woefully inadequate motion,” he told ABC TV.
A joint statement signed by the prime ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand released before the UN vote unequivocally condemned Hamas, saying a ceasefire couldn’t be one-sided and they needed to lay down arms.
Fighters from Hamas killed 1200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages in an attack on October 7, Israeli government sources say.
Since then, more than 18,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been driven from their homes and face starvation as Israel’s bombing campaign stretches into its third month.