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Australia beefs up navy as tension with China rises

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended the Central Australian Business Council's networking day, held in Canberra. Picture taken on 19/06/2018.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended the Central Australian Business Council's networking day, held in Canberra. Picture taken on 19/06/2018. Reuters

Australia on Friday awarded a 30 billion-euro contract to build a new generation of warships to British defence giant BAe Systems. Analysts say Australia is revamping its naval forces with China’s growing maritime capabilities in mind.


Military specialists say that Australia’s navy needs a revamp and that, with China increasingly perceived as a threat in the region, now is the time to act.

“Our existing frigates, the Anzac class, are running out,” says Carlyle Thayer, a professor Emiritus with the Australia Defence Force Academy.

Australia has always viewed the South Pacific as an area to keep out other major powers that aren’t friendly to preserve Australia’s security

“So this is just a roll-over of getting follow-on ships. And there was an international tender bid and BAe won that particular one."

French and the Italian bids of ships already built lost out to one that is under design in Britain.

“It will enter the British waters in a few years, and much later for Australia," Thayer says. "But it is considered the most sophisticated hunter submarine killer of its type and that will suit Australia’s defence policy."

Even if this purchase is not specifically directed against China, relations between Canberra and Beijing are not brilliant at the moment.

Law on foreign agents

On Friday the Australian parliament also approved the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill.

People or entities who undertake activities on behalf of foreign interests will also be required to declare their involvement.

The law can be compared to a US law that requires foreign agents to register.

Russia has recently passed a similar measure.

Last year Australian intelligence agencies singled out China as a focus for concern.

And in June Australia prevented a Chinese company from laying a major undersea internet trunk line to the Solomon Islands, another sign that bilateral relations are not going too well.

“Huawei [the Chinese telecom giant that was bidding to put the cable] is under Chinese law required to cooperate with their intelligence services,” says Thayer.

“And it is bidding quite strongly for the 4G network here in Australia. Australia was quite concerned that undersea cables going to Pacific islands would just link up the Solomons and others, could be used to intercept Australian diplomatic cables that were sent that way and give China an advantage.3

Australia is anxious to keep powers it considers unfriendly out of the South Pacific for security reasons.

Economic interests are also at stake.

“Australia’s main trading partner is China,” says Wendell Minnick, Asia editor of Defence News. “So it is a delicate issue.”

He points at worries that China may be aiming at “locking down the South China Sea militarily. They are putting radars and air defence systems and anti-ship missiles and airbases down there and that will lock out anybody who would try to go through there,” in which case it would not be wise to arouse Beijing’s anger.

“If you are shipping oil from the Middle East up to the Malacca Strait into the South China Sea and then up to Japan and South Korea, you have a problem,” Minnick says.

The military buildup - with China expanding its navy in the South China Sea, Australia’s purchase of highly sophisticated ships, China’s perceived interference in domestic politics, and its attempts to take over crucial parts of the telecom - form a potentially explosive diplomatic cocktail in the region.


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