Defence Minister Richard Marles has warned Australia and the US will need to do more to counter a growing number of threats in the Indo-Pacific.

In a speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington during a four-day trip to the US, Mr Marles said Australia would play a greater role in security in the region.

He indicated issues, such as the rise of China, had complicated issues across the Pacific and that Australia and the US would have to work more closely together in coming years.

“We can’t afford to stand still, because in the years ahead the US-Australia alliance will not only have to operate in a much more strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific, it will need to contribute to a more effective balance of military power aimed at avoiding a catastrophic failure of deterrence,” he said.

“Events in Europe underline the risk we face when one country’s determined military build-up convinced its leader that the potential benefit of conflict was worth the risk.”

China’s military build-up in the Pacific had been “occurring at a rate unseen since World War II”, warning the country’s coercion of others around the South China Sea had many implications for the region, he added.

Mr Marles promised Australia would play a more active role in the region, especially on issues such as security.

“Australia will do its share, this government is resolved that Australia will take greater responsibility for its own security,” he said.

“We will make the investment necessary to increase the range and lethality of the Australian Defence Force so that it is able to hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia.”

Bridi Rice, CEO of the Canberra-based Development Intelligence Lab and a visiting Fulbright scholar at the CSIS, asked Mr Marles about US-Australian cooperation on development in the Pacific being a “missing element”.

Mr Marles said it was an “underdone” part of the alliance and a huge opportunity to do more. 

The US has committed to increasing its development presence in the Pacific with Fiji a potential hub for USAID.

Ms Rice told AAP while Australia and the US had joint military exercises, intelligence and a rich web of exchange between security leaders, there was little in the way of joint cooperation on development “on the ground”.

“That has got to change if we are going to have an effective alliance in the Pacific,” she said, suggesting a coordinated unit and joint development assessments.

During his visit, Mr Marles will also meet with his American counterpart Lloyd Austin.

The AUKUS security pact between Australia, the US and the UK, which will provide Australia with nuclear submarines, will also be a key topic of discussion during the visit.

A decision is yet to be made as to whether Australia will acquire submarines designed by the US or UK as part of the pact.

“For a three ocean nation, the heart of deterrence is undersea capability. AUKUS will not only make Australia safer, it will make Australia a more potent and capable partner,” Mr Marles said in his speech.

“That the United States and the United Kingdom have agreed to work with Australia to meet our needs is not only a game-changer, it illustrates why alliances help reinforce, not undermine, our country’s national sovereignty.”

Mr Marles will also meet with members of the US Congress during his trip and address the Australian American Leadership Dialogue.