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Australia announces major weapons upgrade amid tensions with China in Indo-Pacific

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)
The file photo shows a Royal Australian Air Force F-35 warplane. (By AP)

The Australian government has approved a $2.6-billion plan to accelerate the acquisition of advanced US strike capabilities as part of a major weapons upgrade for the country’s armed forces, amid heightened tensions between Canberra and Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton announced on Tuesday that the plan called for expediting the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) used by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as well as the Naval Strike Missile for Royal Australian Navy frigates and maritime mines.

“With Australia’s strategic environment becoming more complex and challenging, our Australian Defense Force must be able to hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance,” Dutton said.

“These world-class strike weapon systems will equip our forces to better protect Australia’s maritime approaches and when necessary, contribute to coalition operations in our region.”

According to Lockheed’s JASSM-ER fact sheet, the weapon has a 926-kilometer range, uses an infrared seeker to engage targets, and carries a 454-kilogram warhead.

Dutton described Lockheed Martin Australia and Raytheon Australia, along with their US-based parent companies, as the “largest suppliers of guided weapons to the Department of Defense,” and said, “We will be working with them to rapidly increase our ability to maintain and manufacture guided weapons and their components in Australia.”

The Australian defense minister said the $2.6-billion military upgrade was driven by a “worsening global security situation,” and added that the government was mainly concerned about China's military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Everything we’re doing is designed to try and deter any act of aggression... we want peace to prevail,” Dutton said, claiming that, “The Chinese government is on a course in relation to Taiwan and amassing nuclear weapons.”

Dutton claimed that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy was amassing a "huge number" of warships, and Australian defense planners were reassessing the risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia’s strategic outlook was becoming “more complex and challenging,” he said. “There is potential of conflict in our area in a couple of years.”

Dutton said under the federal government’s plan, Australian naval vessels and warplanes would be equipped with advanced missiles by 2024, three years ahead of schedule.

The military upgrade plan comes as tensions between China, Australia, and Solomon Islands have over the last month escalated dramatically over the draft of a security treaty between the Pacific nation and Beijing.

Canberra has voiced fears of the possibility that China could establish a military base on Solomon Islands, which would put the Pacific island within Beijing’s domain of control.

Situated in Oceania, the Solomon Islands is a sovereign country consisting of six major islands and more than 900 smaller ones. The island chain, home to 800,000 people, was engulfed in unrest and riots in November 2021, almost a year after it decided to end diplomatic ties with Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and establish formal links with China.

China has sovereignty over Chinese Taipei, and under the “One China” policy, almost all world countries recognize that sovereignty. The US, too, recognizes Chinese sovereignty over the island but has long courted Taipei in an attempt to unnerve Beijing.

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