Given the ongoing Chinese belligerence in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Eastern Ladakh, it is becoming clearer that if and when another global conflict happens, it will happen in the Indo-Pacific. And China will be at the centre of such a conflict. It is making untenable, revisionist claims in the territorial waters and mainland of other countries in the region. Countries like Australia and the US who stand to lose freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific are bound to get dragged in such a conflict, because Chinese actions of establishing artificial islands and militarising international waters is hurting global commons.
Now, we are looking at the first signs of a country preparing for such an eventuality with Canberra announcing ambitious plans to upgrade defence capabilities. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a 40 per cent hike in defence spending over the next decade.
The country will spend 270 billion Australian dollars (approximately 186 billion USD) on its defence programme, as against the 195 billion Australian dollars (134 billion USD) committed for the next ten years in 2016. The budget has been enhanced as a part of the new 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan.
Morrison has realised how China has carved out a more dangerous world order out of the ongoing Pandemic. He said, “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, more dangerous and more disorderly.”
Canberra’s strategic ally, India figures prominently in Australia’s defence upgrade plans. Morrison said, “Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. The risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening…Previous assumptions of enduring advantage and technological edge are no longer constants and cannot be relied upon. Coercive activities are rife.”
In fact, Australia has also named India as one of the main committed partners in the Indo-Pacific. This is crucial as only last month, India and Australia signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) that increases military inter-operability by allowing each other’s navies to access military bases for logistical support.
Both the countries want to use the strategic location of their Islands to put China in a strategic abyss, in the event of a major conflict.
All countries having a significant stake in the Indo-Pacific are at the centre of Australia’s defence strategy. the Australian Prime Minister said, “It is not just China and the United States that will determine whether our region stays on path for free and open trade, investment and cooperation that has underpinned stability and prosperity, the people-to-people relationships that bind our region together. Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, the countries of South-East Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Pacific all have agency, choices to make, parts to play and of course, so does Australia.”
It is not a matter of surprise that China is making expansionist claims against all these countries. China’s mythical “nine-dash line” theory encircles 90 per cent of the South China Sea far away from its own territorial waters. It claims sovereignty over the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China doesn’t believe in international rules of engagement, and has refused to abide by a 2016 Arbitration Award too that was delivered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
In the East China Sea, it is claiming sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands of Japan, and at the same time the Dragon is also trying to push the LAC Westwards in Ladakh. Beijing’s Salami-slicing tactics are pushing the Indo-Pacific Region towards what could be the biggest global conflict since the World War II.
Australia itself is fuming at China over the ongoing trade wars, after China imposed steep tariffs on Australian barley and meat. China’s below the belt actions were aimed at punishing Canberra for demanding an international probe into the Wuhan virus Pandemic.
Recently, China was also accused of carrying out a major cyber-attack down under.
As a part of this defence upgrade, Canberra is set to buy new anti-ship cruise missiles from the US Navy. The AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile that Canberra is set to purchase has a range of over 370 kilometres. Initially, it will be fired from the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft and will also be programmed into other aircrafts later on.
The number of missiles to be purchased has not been disclosed, but this is a massive upgrade over Australia’s present anti-ship cruise missiles that can strike upto a distance of 124 kilometres.
The Morrison government is also expected to acquire missiles that can strike upto a distance of thousands of kilometres, but details of such missiles haven’t been released yet.
Australia is preparing for a complete overhaul of its defence capabilities. The country is also expected to commit funds for testing and developing high-speed weapons, including hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic missiles are touted as ‘next-gen’ weapons that can cut through ballistic missile defence systems.
Canberra is showing intent to become a dominating force in the Indo-Pacific. Talking about adversaries, Morrison also said that deterrence capabilities must be enhanced in order to “influence their calculus of costs involved in threatening Australian interests”.
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