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Australia expands military recruitment to noncitzens to bolster defense against foreign threats

Australia is set to start recruiting some noncitizens to boost military numbers, focusing on people from Five Eyes intelligence-sharing nations, officials say.

The Australian military will begin recruiting some noncitizens in a bid to boost troop numbers, the government said Tuesday.

Only people from other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership who hold Australian permanent residency will be eligible.

The move is part of a push to build a military that can resist foreign coercion through blocked trade routes in the future, Defense Minister Richard Marles said.

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Marles, who is also deputy prime minister, said the change was a major step toward addressing a 4,400-person shortfall in the Australian Defense Force, whose target strength is 63,600 full-time personnel. The government intends to increase that number to 80,000 by 2040.

Relatively low unemployment is one of the factors working against the Australian military attracting and retaining personnel.

Australia is particularly reliant on open sea and air routes as an island nation that trades with the world and is therefore suspectable to coercion from foreign militaries, Marles said.

"We are not trying to make ourselves a peer of the United States or of China," Marles told delegates at a security conference. "That’s not a credible thing to propose."

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"In a far less certain world, do we have an ability to be able to resist coercion of any adversary and to make our way?" he added.

New Zealanders who have lived in Australia for at least a year will be eligible to join the military from July, and permanent residents from the United States, Britain and Canada will be eligible from January 2025.

Australia's Five Eyes partners are also struggling to hit military recruitment targets. In Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised that 18-year-olds will have to perform a year of mandatory military or civilian national service if his government is re-elected at elections next month.

The New Zealand Defense Force is short of 1,300 uniformed personnel, officials reported in February, after losing 30% of its military personnel between 2021 and last year.

New Zealand Defense Minister Judith Collins said Australia's criteria for recruiting New Zealanders, including a ban on those who had served in a foreign military in the past two years, meant the two militaries won't be competing for personnel.

"Australia is New Zealand's only ally, and we continue to have a very close relationship," Collins said in an email to The Associated Press in response to the new recruiting rules.

Australia has struck a partnership with the U.S. and Britain that promises to create an Australian fleet of submarines powered by U.S. nuclear technology.

China has protested the so-called AUKUS partnership and Australian plans to acquire the vessels.

Tensions between the two militaries in waters where China has contested territorial claims have been building in recent months.

Marles said he had raised a recent clash between the two militaries at a weekend meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun.

Australia accused a Chinese fighter jet of endangering an Australian navy helicopter flying over the Yellow Sea by dropping flares in its path.

China accuses the Australian air crew of spying on a nearby Chinese navy training exercise.

"It was a good meeting. It went longer than was anticipated. It was very frank," Marles said of his meeting with Dong on the sidelines of the Shangri-La defense forum in Singapore.

The incident over the Yellow Sea followed another that took place in international waters off Japan in November, in which Australia accuses of the crew of a Chinese destroyer of injuring an Australian diver with its sonar equipment. China denies injurying anyone.

"We know how to engage with each other on bases which are safe and professional," Marles said. "It’s not enough that it happens only in the vast bulk of occasions. It needs to happen on every occasion."

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