Government deepens U.S. alliance and funds major military expansionRob Taylor, WALL STREET JOURNAL
25 February 2016
CANBERRA – Australia’s government is strengthening its U.S. alliance and plowing ahead with a 10-year, $140 billion military expansion amid rising regional tensions over China’s muscle-flexing on key trade routes in the South China Sea.
A defense blueprint released by Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday urged Beijing to be more forthcoming about its security intentions in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands.
While stopping short of directly confronting China over their construction, Canberra warned it would have a “major impact” on the stability of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region over coming decades.
“As a major power, it will be important for regional stability that China provides reassurance to its neighbors by being more transparent about its defense policies,” the policy document said. “While it is natural for newly powerful countries to seek greater influence, they also have a responsibility to act in a way that constructively contributes to global stability, security and prosperity.”
The defense paper is Australia’s first since China began building artificial islands on disputed reefs in the South China Sea, upsetting regional neighbors and prompting Washington to challenge Beijing’s claims by mounting freedom of navigation patrols by air and sea. U.S. officials say Beijing is militarizing the region as a way to bolster its maritime claims, while China has defended its work as defensive and legitimate acts.
Fresh satellite imagery suggests that China has been building radar facilities on some of the artificial islands, in a move that would improve its military power in the region, a U.S.-based think tank said Tuesday. The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the radar installations in the Spratly Islands came days after U.S. and Taiwanese officials said Beijing had placed surface-to-air missiles on the Paracels chain, north of the Spratlys.
Australia faces an awkward diplomatic act in balancing economic ties with China, its biggest trade partner, while trying to forge deeper strategic ties with the U.S. As much as 60% of Australia’s seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea area, much of it bound for China. A 2009 Australian defense blueprint angered Beijing by warning that the pace and scope of China’s military modernization could give its neighbors cause for concern and could lead to potential conflict.
“Australia’s security and prosperity is directly tied to the stability of our region and to the maintenance of a stable, rules-based global order,” Mr. Turnbull said Thursday.
So far, Australia has been reluctant to follow the U.S. with freedom of navigation patrols, although long-range maritime patrol aircraft have been challenged by China during regular reconnaissance flights through the region.
A senior Australian defense official said key allies and regional countries including China had been briefed ahead of the latest paper’s release.
“The Chinese won’t be surprised,” the official said.
Despite a sharp deterioration in its budget because of tumbling commodity prices and a slowing economy, Australia laid out plans for an ambitious military overhaul including a doubling of its undersea fleet, with 12 new submarines, missile drones, a larger navy and an increase in military numbers.
It also called for greater maritime power with ship-destroying missiles and more military exercises with the U.S. Both countries were working to boost rotations of thousands of U.S. Marines, aircraft and warships through Australia, while also working jointly to develop ballistic-missile shield defenses.
Canberra pledged to lift military spending to 2% of economic output, or around 58 billion Australian dollars (U.S. $42 billion) a year. Spending this fiscal year is roughly A$32 billion.
The rapid rise in Chinese military spending is fueling an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. A recent report by the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research said Australia was the world’s fifth-largest arms buyer last year. Six of the top 10 global arms importers hailed from the region, including India in the top spot and third-ranked China. Russia has also re-emerged as a potential regional player, building up its submarine forces and recently supplying arms to the tiny Pacific nation of Fiji.
“Defense budgets in Asia are increasing in the wake of China’s rise, the spike in its military spending and its apparent attempts to rewrite the rules in the East and South China Seas,” said John Blaxland, a security expert at the Australian National University.
Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said Wednesday that he has a similar view to U.S. military officials: that China is trying to transform the artificial islands into operational bases.
“China’s behavior is trying to change the status quo unilaterally and push it towards that direction further by accumulating actions,” the Japanese defense minister said.
Chieko Tsuneoka in Tokyo contributed to this article.