Australia has unveiled an ambitious plan to modernize its armed forces, a strategy informed in part by escalating and evolving regional tensions between the US and China. The $270b programme will expand the Australian armed forces, with the prominent addition of long-range strike capabilities.
Australian PM Scott Morrison’s recent announcement that his country would acquire long-range missiles to shore up its defences against long term strategic threats has caused a geopolitical stir. Though the country has hosted US forces since 2012, Canberra had always sought to assuage Chinese sensitivities as one of its biggest trading partners. Historically, Australia has remained largely aloof from growing regional tensions, choosing to engage Beijing through trade and diplomatic interaction. However, China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific has precipitated a defensive posture within Australia’s Liberal government.
The decision to invest a whopping AUS $270b (US$186b) in building strike capabilities over the next decade – as outlined in its 2020 Australian Defence Strategic Update – is meant to “ensure we are able to shape our environment and deter actions against our interests”. The plan boosts defence spending by 40% and virtually guarantees that Canberra’s military posture would graduate from purely defensive to offensive capabilities, either independently or as part of a multinational coalition. The centrepiece of the new plan is the purchase of an unspecified number of US-built AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). It also outlines long term ambitions to develop hypersonic weapons and high-end ballistic missile defence systems.
Strategic partnership gone sour
Though China is Australia’s largest trading partner and accounts for more than a third of its global exports, the relationship has grown increasingly acrimonious, with China banning Australian beef and imposing tariffs on barley imports after PM Morrison innocuously called for an independent and impartial investigation into the origins of coronavirus. So incensed was China with Morrison’s suggestion that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, Global Times, labelled the Australian government, “America’s lapdog” while the Chinese embassy warned that Canberra risked a boycott of its products back in China over its “petty tricks”. However, the seeds of suspicion had already been sown in 2019 when allegations of Chinese covert interference in Australia’s domestic politics took the local media by storm.
In a damning revelation, China was alleged to have orchestrated a sinister plan to infiltrate the Australian Parliament, a charge Beijing has refuted. In 2018, a furore over foreign political donations led to a law capping funding from abroad to a mere AUS $100. It did not help matters that the donor at the centre of the controversy was a businessman of Chinese origin who was anxious about securing Australian citizenship for himself and his family. Beijing responded to Australian protests by arresting a Chinese-born Australian national on unsubstantiated charges of spying. Public opinion about China has hit rock bottom in recent months even as the coronavirus death toll continues to mount. Australia has been forging closer partnerships with its traditional ally, the US, as well as multi-nation regional groups like the Quad – involving Japan, India and the US- in a bid to stand up to China.
Watch: India-Australia bilateral navy exercise
Changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific
The Australian defence review comes at a time when China is in the midst of an unprecedented naval build-up that outpaces every other country in the region. From building artificial islands in the South China Sea (SCS) and tightening its grip on Hong Kong, to threatening Taiwan with war, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is intent on reshaping the global order as it languishes in a state of flux amidst the coronavirus crisis. The US Navy has dispatched as many as three aircraft carriers to the region as a show of force to reassure its allies in the region.
Watch: US moves Warships into South China Sea
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Australian government has been among the top recipients of US-origin weaponry over the last 10 years. Australia is currently in the process of receiving state of the art F-35A stealth fighters from US-based Lockheed Martin in addition to Boeing F-18G Growler Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft. Combined with the LRASM that the Morrison government has committed to buy, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) should be able to defend the country’s maritime approaches. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) already deploys Aegis destroyers equipped with America’s premier Standard Missile -2/3 air defence missile system that can provide seamless coverage for a naval fleet operating at sea. Australia is on course to buy 9 Hunter class Anti- Submarine Warfare (ASW) frigates by the mid-2020s which will enhance its ability to counter Chinese submarines lurking off its coast. In a recent media interaction, Australia’s top military officer, General Angus Campbell observed “a sharper edge emerging to the great power competition” in the days ahead.
Lessons for India
Unlike Australia, India is a frontline state in the current geopolitical scenario, sharing as it does a land border with China. Despite the economic constraints currently facing the nation, the ever-present threat along its northern borders cannot be ignored any longer. What is needed is long term strategic planning and increasing defence spending to at least 2% of GDP. There is no doubt that India has among the most battle-hardened soldiers in the world, but they cannot hope to prevail against China if they are armed and equipped to fight the battles of yesteryear.
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