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Australia beefing up military as it looks at China

By A. ODYSSEUS PATRICK | The Washington Post | Published: March 21, 2016

SYDNEY — The United States has long pushed its allies not to rely so much on America's huge military forces and spend more on their own defense. Now, a conservative government in Australia wary of the military rise of China is planning an extensive arms build-up.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this month committed to raising defense spending in five years to the equivalent of 2 percent of the economy in perpetuity, a big increase that could influence the balance of power in the Pacific Ocean, experts say.

The decision is an example of how China's economic and military rise is forcing allies that have long relied on U.S. defense spending to guarantee their own security to re-evaluate.

Chinese nuclear and diesel submarines have been tracked in the Eastern Indian Ocean in the past two years, according to James Brown, a military analyst at the University of Sydney. The more frequent operation of Chinese warships in waters close to Australia is a factor behind the plan to increase defense spending, which had fallen to its lowest level relative to the economy since the eve of World War II, he said.

"The Chinese navy is getting more sophisticated and operating further from home," Brown said in an interview. "Everyone is looking to increase their influence in the region."

Australia plans to double the size of its submarine fleet, build nine frigates to hunt submarines, and buy eight spy planes and 72 F-35A fighter aircraft. There will be new anti-ship missiles and transport aircraft.

The ships and submarines will be equipped with weapons and other systems similar to those used by the U.S. and Japanese navies, which should improve their ability to fight and operate together.

A stronger Australian navy will please U.S. naval commanders, who want more firepower to offset the Chinese build-up in the South China Sea, where China's decision to construct bases on disputed islands has raised fears of an inadvertent clash.

The U.S. Seventh Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, last month publicly urged the Australian government to conduct naval patrols within 12 nautical miles of the occupied islands - a test of international sovereignty that the Chinese government would likely regard as provocative.

Australia's new defense minister, Marise Payne, was noncommittal toward the suggestion.

Like America's other main allies in the Pacific, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Australia has the delicate task of balancing its vital trade relationship with China with the military threat. China already has the largest navy and air force in Asia. As China grows, analysts expect it to seek greater influence in the region.

If war ever broke out, the Royal Australian Navy would be used to protect the huge ships that transport the country's minerals north. Missiles would defend the gas platforms in Northern Australia that provide energy for factories across Asia.

Australia will upgrade military runways and expand naval ports, in part to make it easier for U.S. military aircraft and ships to visit. China has missiles that can strike American aircraft and ships at their bases in Japan, the headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Analysts say the United States wants to spread its forces across the region to avoid a Pearl Harbor-like attack, when the Japanese launched a surprise assault in 1941 to knock out the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

"If you are concentrated like that you can create an incentive for them [the enemy] to hit you fast, early and very heavily," said Ross Babbage, a former defense adviser to the Australian government, in an interview.

In many ways the island continent of Australia is the perfect military base. It separates the strategically important Indian and Pacific Oceans; it has the equipment, supplies and skilled workforce needed by forces operating a long way from home; and it has extensive areas of empty land and ocean that can be used for training.

The policy is likely to be good news for American arms manufacturers. Australia was the seventh-largest foreign buyer of U.S. military equipment in 2013-14, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees U.S. foreign arms sales.

The White House is likely to be pleased, too. President Barack Obama recently complained, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine, that allies sometimes relied too much on the United States. "Free riders aggravate me," he said.

Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state in George W. Bush's administration, has previously criticized liberal and conservative Australian governments for "free riding" on American defense spending. In an email, he praised the Turnbull government's plan, especially for its navy, although he acknowledged that it may be up to future leaders to execute it.

"This will allow for much better defense of Australia and a much higher degree of cooperation with the United States, should the government of the day in Canberra so decide," Armitage said.