Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced plans to boost defence spending by 40 percent over the next 10 years, including investing in long-range missiles as part of an effort to “deter or respond to aggression” in the Indo-Pacific region.
In a major policy speech on Wednesday, Morrison said Australia will spend 270 billion Australian dollars ($186.5bn) over the next 10 years to acquire longer-range strike capabilities across air, sea and land.
He warned the country is facing economic and strategic uncertainty not seen in the region since World War II – for reasons including tensions between the United States and China as well as the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We want an Indo-Pacific free from coercion and hegemony. We want a region where all countries, large and small, can engage freely with each other and be guided by international rules and norms,” Morrison said in Canberra.
But the risk of conflict was increasing, he said, noting an “unprecedented rate” of military modernisation in the region, and rising tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as in the Himalayas between India and China.
“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, that is more dangerous, and that is more disorderly,” he said.
“Relations between China and the United States are fractious at best as they compete for political, economic and technological supremacy,” he added.
The spending will include investment in more lethal and long-range capabilities, such as anti-ship and land strike weapons, Morrison said, adding the country would also consider developing hypersonic missiles that can travel at least five times the speed of sound.
The prime minister said Australia would first buy 200 long-range anti-ship missiles from the US Navy for 800 million Australian dollars ($552 million). The weapon is a significant upgrade from Australia’s current AGM-84 air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missile, which was introduced in the early 1980s.
Morrison also pinpointed cybersecurity as key to Australia’s defence strategy, a day after announcing the “largest-ever” boost in cybersecurity spending – a roughly 10-percent hike that takes the budget for the next decade to 15 million Australian dollars ($10.3 million).
The US, Australia’s most important security partner since WWII, remains “the foundation of our defence policy,” Morrison continued. And although Australia remains prepared to send troops further afield “where it is in our national interest to do so”, he underscored that could come at the cost of the country’s ability to respond to threats from and in its own back yard.
Australia has fought alongside the US in every major war of the last century, often in areas far from its shores.
The defence plan will please US President Donald Trump, who has accused allies of taking Washington’s protection for granted. But it will do little for relations with China, Australia’s largest trading partner.
“China is the unspoken elephant in the room,” said Sam Roggeveen, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s International Security Program.
“While it’s absolutely right that we focus on our region, but buying long-range missiles – particularly ones for land targets – could invite a response from Beijing,” he told Reuters news agency.
Already dealt a blow by Australia’s 2018 decision to ban China’s Huawei from its nascent 5G broadband network, bilateral ties have in recent months been soured by Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, Australia said a “sophisticated state-actor” had spent months trying to hack all levels of the government, political bodies, essential service providers and operators of critical infrastructure.
Australia sees China as the chief suspect, three sources told Reuters.
China denies it is behind the spate of cyberattacks, and the souring of ties has spilled over to trade.
China has suspended beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors and imposed hefty tariffs on barley, although both sides say that is unrelated to the latest dispute.