Australia plans an overhaul of its armed forces in preparation for a more volatile Asia-Pacific region caused by the United States' fading dominance and China's rise. The government plans to buy 12 submarines along with an array of ships, helicopters and combat aircraft.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wants his country to become a maritime power of the 21st century. His plan to remodel the defense force includes 12 new submarines, 100 fighter jets and missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers.
The navy is the big winner, with three new air warfare destroyers, six heavy landing ships and 24 naval combat helicopters.
Mr. Rudd says the biggest re-organization of defense planning in a decade is in response to military expansion in other parts of the region.
"There are in certain parts of the region the build-up of armed forces. We simply need to take a calm, measured, responsible approach for the future to make sure that our army, navy and air force have the resources they need for the future," he said. "They're a fantastic group of professional men and women. We just want to make sure they're properly equipped for the future and proper defense planning means this, being prepared for the whole range of national security challenges in the future."
Defense chiefs in Canberra say that China's military build-up could be a cause for concern in the region.
While the government does not foresee any confrontation with the Chinese, it is planning for it, just in case.
Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull says Prime Minister Rudd is sending out confused messages to both the United States and the Chinese.
"It makes no sense for Australia in 2009 to base its long-term strategy on the highly contentious proposition that Australia is on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China," said Malcolm. "The risk of Mr. Rudd presenting himself as some kind of trans-Pacific interlocutor is that he will be perceived by the Americans as being overly sympathetic to China and by the Chinese as a bearer of other people's messages, rather than an advocate of his own.'
But Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says the plan outlined in a new policy document is a sensible approach to a changing region.
"The paper acknowledges that U.S. dominance will be a constant right throughout the period of this White Paper; for the next 20 years. But it also acknowledges that we have an emergence of new powers, including the re-emergence of Russia, and that will of course lead to some strategic competition across the globe," he said. "In other words, we need to be able to defend our country without necessarily relying on the assistance of other nation states."
But the government says while Australia should be more self-reliant militarily, the United States will remain an indispensable ally.
Some defense analysts worry that Australia's military expansion plans are the wrong way to respond to the growth in China's armed forces.
Professor Hugh White, an expert on strategic studies at the Australian National University, thinks that more thoughtful diplomacy is needed.
"The really important thing is to make sure that Australia contributes to the evolution in Asia of a new way of doing business in Asia - a new Asian order in which China's growing power can be peacefully accommodated and that is primarily a diplomatic task," he said. "I don't think the present government has done nearly enough to try and really contribute to the shaping of a new regional order in Asia.'
The government has yet to say how much its plans will cost, although some estimates put the price tag in excess of $70 billion, which will be spent over several years.
Australia has a relatively small but technically advanced defense force, with about 50,000 personnel, 3,000 of which are serving overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.