Australian P.M. plans military expansion to counter Asian arms race

With a 3 percent annual increase in military spending, Australia hopes to balance China's arms spending and India's sizeable military.

Australia says it needs to overhaul its defense systems to counter an arms build up in the Asia-Pacific region. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told veterans on Tuesday that tensions between Asian neighbors could pose a challenge to Australian forces that had "been overstretched for a long time," but could continue to play a role as a global "middle power."

Mr. Rudd, who leads a center-left government that took power last year, said Australia should continue to build up its Navy to defend its waters. It is already committed to expanding its Army, which is part of the NATO deployment in Afghanistan, and investing in advanced weaponry and transportation under a 10-year modernization program. The improvements will include stealth fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, assault ships, and missile shields.

Rudd didn't name any Asian countries as potential threats, reports Reuters. But Australian military planners are wary of China's arms spending and India's sizeable military, as well as an increase in Russian-supplied air defenses in nearby Indonesia and Malaysia. In his speech, Rudd said Australia's close security ties with the United States would continue, even as the US economy is likely to decline in relative influence compared with other economies such as China's.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports that Rudd pointed to unresolved border disputes between China and India, and China's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan as sources of friction in the region. These disputes are future "flash points" that Australia's military, known as the Australian Defence Force, must be prepared to respond to, he said.

Bloomberg reports that Australia's government has pledged to increase military spending by 3 percent annually until 2018. Its budget for the current year is $14.5 billion. In 2007, Australia had a total of 51,504 military personnel in its Army, Navy, and Air Force. In addition to its deployment of 1,000 personnel in Afghanistan, Australia currently has military peacekeepers in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

In his speech, Rudd referred to China's territorial claims over disputed waters in the South China Sea, which have unnerved its neighbors. Vietnam has sparred with China over ownership of offshore oil and gas reserves as well as bellicose postings on Chinese websites, the South China Morning Post reported.

The BBC reports that Rudd described arms spending in Asia as an "explosion." He said military planners had to take account of the competition for energy security and the impact of climate change on food and water availability in the region, as well as shifting and expanding populations that would shape the security landscape.

On Wednesday, Rudd told reporters on a trip to the northern city of Townsville that Australia had to keep an eye on rising Asian powers like China and India that were growing more influential, reports Agence France-Presse. A defense white paper on the future needs of the military is expected to be published later this year.

In an opinion piece, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, praised Rudd for supporting a well-funded military that can undertake operations ranging from disaster relief to high-intensity warfare. He said Rudd had also struck a bold note by predicting the strategic role of the US in Asia would remain dominant until 2050 and possibly beyond, defying predictions that the US is fading in importance.

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