Australia splashes out over £400m on defence upgrade as tensions grow with China

The Australian Government is to spend AUS $747 million (£417 million) upgrading northern military bases and expanding joint exercises with the United States to support “a free and open Indo-Pacific”, it said on Wednesday. The announcement, an expansion of previously pledged funding, comes in the wake of growing tensions with China and a number of senior government figures suggesting military conflict in the region was an increasingly likely possibility. The funding will be used to upgrade an airstrip and training facilities for Australian defence forces and US Marines in the Northern Territory, which permanently hosts thousands of American troops under a 2011 deal between then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama. Announcing the investment in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government would work with allies to focus on “pursuing peace, stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific, with a world order that favours freedom”. It is vital Australia remains “in a position to always protect its interests, always advance our national interests, always support a global world order that favours freedom,” he added. “Working with the United States, our allies and Indo-Pacific neighbours, we will continue to advance Australia’s interests by investing in the Australian Defence Force, particularly across northern Australia.” Despite recent comments by Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo alluding to the possibility of war with China, and the strategic location of the northern bases, Mr Morrison insisted the investment in the Territory was not intended as a signal to China. “All the activities of our Defence Forces [are] designed to pursue peace,” he said. “This is another significant step forward in the steps we're taking as a government to ensure that our Defence Forces are always ready and that they have access to the best training facilities of anywhere in the world.” Earlier this week, Mr Dutton said the Chinese government was militarising ports in the region. “We need to deal with all of that, and that is exactly what we are now focused on,” he said, shortly after the decision of Foreign Minister Marise Payne to scrap a major infrastructure deal between the Victorian state government and China. Previously, the Defence Minister said war with China over Taiwan “should not be discounted”. Similarly, on Monday, Mr Pezzullo used an ANZAC Day message to staff to warn that Australia must prepare for regional conflict. Citing the growing “drum beat” of war being heard in the “free world”, he wrote: “Let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war.” The increasingly bellicose Australian rhetoric is far removed from the position being taken by New Zealand, which has distanced itself from the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence agreement over their criticism of China. During a speech on Monday outlining her vision for the island nation’s relationship with Beijing, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said her government would resist efforts by its allies, including Australia, to expand the role of Five Eyes to combat increasing Chinese aggression. The comments reflect New Zealand’s heavy dependence on trade with China as it seeks to revitalise its economy following the devastation of its lucrative tourism industry by the pandemic.