Analysts have described Australia’s $270 billion defence strategy, which they have said is aimed at countering the rise of China, as a “serious and sobering” wake-up call.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled the policy to prepare the nation’s military against what he’s called a “more dangerous” world in Canberra on Wednesday.
The federal government will develop capabilities in areas such as long-range missiles, cyber and surveillance systems and refocus its attention on the Indo-Pacific region.
Head of the National Security College at the Australian Nation University, professor Rory Medcalf, told SBS News the plan to protect Australia demonstrated the deteriorating strategic environment at hand.
“It’s going to be a pretty sobering wake up to the Australian public,” he said.
“Not a lot of Australians spend their time thinking about do we need a military that’s capable of deterring or even potentially fighting against the Chinese military and that of course is partly what this is all about.”
The government is promising to give Defence $270 billion over the next decade – up from $195 billion promised in 2016 – under the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan.
This will expand moves to acquire sophisticated maritime long-range missiles, air-launched strike and anti-ship weapons, and additional land-based weapons systems.
It will also include investment in a network of satellites for an independent communications network to help Australia establish a stronger surveillance presence in the Pacific.
The government has refrained from saying any one nation is responsible for the strategic shift, but experts say the evidence clearly points to China.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s executive director Peter Jennings said China’s expanding military presence had forced Australia to develop its deterrent and defence capabilities.
“It feels like about 1937 to me and in particular if you look at the behaviour of China annexing territories, suppressing minorities – there’s an echo of history we can’t ignore,” he said.
“This is the world that we’re heading into – it’s going to be a dangerous one and the risk of flashpoints in a number of locations is definitely getting greater.”
In his speech at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Mr Morrison said the stronger defence strategy will help protect the nation as Australia confronts regional challenges not faced since World War II.
“The simple truth is this: even as we stare down the COVID pandemic at home, we need to also prepare for a post-COVID world that is poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly,” he said.
Tensions have been identified as rising in the region, partly because of the volatile relationship between China and the United States.
These trends were identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper but have been recognised as only accelerating since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and political tensions in Hong Kong.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also pointed to rising territorial claims on the disputed border between India and China, the South China Sea and East China Sea in his speech.
The government confirmed Australia would purchase long-range anti-ship missiles from the United States at a cost of $800 million.
Another $75 billion is set to go towards strengthening the Navy, $65 billion towards the Air Force, $55 billion towards the Army and $15 billion on cyber and information warfare capabilities. $7 billion will also be invested in space capabilities over the coming decade.
“Capabilities that can hold potential adversaries’ forces and critical infrastructure at risk from a distance, thereby deterring an attack on Australia and helping to prevent war,” Mr Morrison said.
Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles said the opposition supported the moves to bolster Australia’s security amid the increasingly complex strategic environment.
“Our circumstances are much more complex than they were in 2016. And I think it is timely to be having an update of those strategic circumstances and to recast our thinking,” he told reporters.
But Greens Leader Adam Bandt has accused the government of misusing public money by spending “billions on weapons” while millions of Australians are out of work.
“Arming Australia to the teeth is not going to make Australia any safer. We can’t outgun China,” he said.
“This defence policy looks like it’s been written by The Pentagon. It looks like The Pentagon came with a shopping list and Australian agreed to go out and pick up the tab.”
But Mr Morrison said the strategic environment and heightened risk of miscalculation had made it vital to respond with credible military force.
“We must face the reality that we have moved into a new and less benign strategic era.”
The ANU’s professor Medcalf agreed the strategic shift is “primarily” aimed at preventing conflict rather than bringing it on and was more “inevitable than radical”.
“In a sense this is Australia trying to stay ahead of the curve or in some areas even playing catch up,” he told SBS News.
“It is also a signal to say that we will engage with China but from a position of our own strength. Really it’s about Australia demonstrating that it is serious about its own defence.”
BY TOM STAYNER