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Australia unveils $580mn budget to upgrade military amid tensions with China

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Soldiers from the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade guard Langham Beach after an amphibious assault landing during the Talisman Saber joint military exercises between Australia and the United States, in Queensland, northeast Australia, in July 2017. (File photo by Reuters)

Australia has announced a major upgrade to its northern military bases and a plan to expand joint war games with the US military, amid a persisting diplomatic and trade row with China.

“Our objective is a free and open Indo-Pacific, to ensure a peaceful region, one that, at the same time, Australia is in a position to always protect its interests,” conservative Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday, unveiling a 580-million-dollar budget to upgrade four northern bases.

“We will always do what is necessary to ensure Australia has the capability it needs to protect and defend its interests,” Morrison added.

He said an airstrip in the Northern Territory would be extended to accommodate larger aircraft, firing ranges would be overhauled, and new training facilities would be constructed for military personnel as well as US Marines forces.

Australian military experts have even suggested that Canberra should consider developing nuclear weapons capability, since Australia’s relatively small conventional military force is unlikely to be able to defend the vast continent-country from an attack, according to AFP.

Critics of the move, however, have accused Morrison’s hawkish government of staging a crisis to divert attention from a stalled coronavirus vaccine rollout as well as falling poll numbers.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was quoted by AFP as saying that Morrison, Defense Minister Peter Dutton, and allied right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch were “trying desperately to shift the domestic political agenda away from the vaccine debacle, the climate change fiasco, and abuse scandals in Canberra.”

The military upgrades, part of Australia’s 270-billion-dollar military funding to improve its long-range strike capabilities in the next decade, are due to begin this year and conclude by 2026.

Morrison claimed last year that the funding was needed as the Asia-Pacific region was experiencing the greatest level of economic and strategic uncertainty since World War II.

Morrison said the new military build-up would also enhance joint war games with the US.

More than 2,000 American Marines are already in Australia’s north as part of annual joint training activities. The two allies also hold biennial war games, the next of which is due to start in August.

Typically, more than 30,000 military forces take part in the exercises off Australia’s east coast.

“The United States and Australia have been deeply engaged in defense cooperation for over half a century,” said the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Canberra, Michael Goldman.

“We will continue to look for additional ways to partner with Australia, as our ally, to advance the security and prosperity of Americans, Australians, and the peoples of the Indo-Pacific region,” Goldman added.

Australian Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo earlier claimed that liberal democracies must brace for war.

While he did not specify why, his comments come during a major deterioration of relations between the West and China, including over Chinese Taipei (Taiwan).

Dutton, the Australian defense minister, also said on Sunday that the prospect of a conflict between Beijing and Taipei “should not be discounted.”

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