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 susceptible 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.”

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles speaks during the Shanghai-La Dialogue Defense Summit in Singapore on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE/IISS/Handout

“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 with Australian permanent residency 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 has struck a partnership with the US and Britain that promises to create an Australian fleet of submarines powered by US 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 Defence 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.

Students climb a wall at the Recruit Training Unit course in Australia. Photo: Australian Defense Force via AP

China accuses the Australian aircrew 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 defence 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 injuring 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.”