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Malcolm Turnbull welcomes Trump plans for military buildup in Asia-Pacific

Malcolm Turnbull has publicly endorsed the proposed US military buildup in the Asia-Pacific region which has been flagged by the incoming Trump administration, while launching a swingeing political attack on the federal opposition, alleging Labor is hopelessly split on the alliance.

Asked on Wednesday whether he was at all concerned about talk in the US about the deployment of a giant US military force to counter China in the region, the Australian prime minister was unequivocal. He told reporters “a stronger United States means a safer world”.

The Guardian reported last week two senior Trump advisers had flagged the incoming administration’s desire to expand the US navy from 274 ships to 350 and to deploy more extensively in the region to counter China’s growing assertiveness.

This talk has only gathered pace post-election, with public commentary over the past 24 hours from Rudy Giuliani, who is considered the frontrunner to be the new US secretary of state, about the proposed buildup.

Giuliani reportedly told a business conference China would not be able to match the US in the Pacific if the navy increased to 350 vessels. “If you face them with a military that is modern, gigantic, overwhelming and unbelievably good at conventional and asymmetric warfare, [China] may challenge it, but I doubt it,” Giuliani is reported to have said.

Donald Trump also flagged his intentions during a 15-minute conversation with Turnbull immediately after his election.

A more assertive US military posture in the region will likely inflame underlying tensions between Washington and Beijing, which have flared in the flashpoint of the South China Sea.

On Wednesday Turnbull appeared sanguine about the development, telling reporters in Canberra Trump had “campaigned on a promise to increase investment in the US military and we support and welcome a strong United States”.

“A stronger United States means a safer world,” he said.

Turnbull also doubled down on domestic politics, declaring Labor was split on the US alliance after the shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, said on Tuesday that Australia was at a “change point” in the bilateral relationship after the election of Trump.

The prime minister declared that Wong wanted to cut ties with Washington, and “to move away from our most trusted, most enduring ally, move away, put our country at risk”.

In a column published Tuesday, Wong did not argue that Australia should abandon the postwar alliance, but she said post-Trump: “We are at a change point, and face the possibility of a very different world and a very different America.”

“Our collective task now is to carefully and dispassionately consider Australia’s foreign policy and global interests over coming months, and how best to effect these within the alliance framework.”

Wong also argued Australia needed a better roadmap in Asia.

Turnbull told reporters the Labor left had always been uncomfortable with the US alliance, and he contended commentary from Labor about the alliance was a distraction from internal divisions on national security and border protection.

He pointed to separate commentary from the shadow defence minister, Richard Marles, who argued during a Sky News interview that it was important to have increased US presence in the region.

Turnbull suggested the right faction, of which Marles is a member, was attempting to “crab walk” away from the Wong position.

In Mackay the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who has been critical of Trump’s policy positions, said he was optimistic about the future of the alliance.

“We have shared values with the United States but we’re not exactly the same as the United States, so when people talk about the future of the American alliance, I’m optimistic about it, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be engaging in Asia,” Shorten said.

“Labor’s always had three pillars to our foreign policy and nothing’s changed: One is the American alliance, two is deeper engagement in our region, and three is respect for multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and international forums which deal with a whole range of important issues which effect the globe.”

As well as giving succour to Trump’s plans for the military buildup, the prime minister also on Wednesday gave a tacit endorsement to a criticism Trump made repeatedly during the presidential campaign about allies failing to contribute to the costs of their own defence.

During the campaign, Trump suggested that key players in the Asia-Pacific region, like Japan and South Korea, needed to fund their own defence.

On Wednesday Turnbull said: “I think the United States is entitled to expect its allies to make a commitment, a significant commitment, to their own defence and to that partnership, and Australia does.”

“No one can suggest that my government is not absolutely committed to ensuring that the men and women of the ADF have the capabilities, have the resources, to keep our nation safe.”

Earlier in the day the defence industry minister, Christopher Pyne, noted that Australia pulled its weight in the alliance in terms of military spending.

“Fortunately we are not strategic bludgers because we are at 2% of gross domestic product,” Pyne said at a submarine event.

“Given the spend of the Turnbull government into the next 10 years, I would imagine that will be surpassed at some stage in the future. So we are one of the countries that is pulling our weight.”