SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says multibillion-dollar investments in military bases in northern Australia are designed to enhance regional peace, rather than as a deliberate response to China's growing assertiveness. In response, officials in Beijing have called Australian politicians the “real troublemakers.”
Australia is beefing up its military bases in the Northern Territory, including facilities to train aboriginal recruits, and others that host joint exercises with U.S. Marines stationed in the region.
Speaking at the Robertson army barracks in the Northern Territory, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted a 10-year $6 billion plan to improve defense facilities was meant to keep the peace in an "uncertain" region rather than preparing for conflict. He was responding to questions from the media about recent tensions with Beijing over Taiwan.
“All of our objectives here through the activities of our defense forces are designed to pursue peace. That is the objective of our government,” he said.
Morrison denied huge investment in military bases in northern Australia was aimed at sending a message to China. Government ministers and analysts have said Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea and its crushing of democratic dissent in Hong Kong have been of great strategic concern to Canberra.
Morrison has also, though, defended comments by Australia’s new defense minister, Peter Dutton, who said the possibility of conflict with China over Taiwan should not be “discounted."
Dutton’s remarks have further inflamed diplomatic tensions between Canberra and Beijing, already strained by geopolitical and trade disputes.
Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian Wednesday called Australia's politicians the "real troublemakers" and declared Australia's concerns about the threat posed by China as “unethical.”
Beijing has, in the past, accused Australia of peddling “anti-China hysteria.”
Bilateral ties are now so bad that it is reported that Australian government ministers have for months been unable to speak with their Chinese counterparts, who refuse to take their calls.
Caitlin Byrne, the director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, argues that a more measured and delicate approach is needed.
“I think not just cautious and careful diplomatic language, but also, you know, sometimes we need to potentially work quietly and less with a megaphone,” said Byrne.
Australia has had to juggle commitments to a longstanding military alliance with the United States with valuable commercial ties with China, its biggest trading partner.
Political squabbles with Beijing have had damaging economic consequences.
Canberra’s call last year for a worldwide investigation into the origins of COVID-19 that was first detected in China caused fury in Beijing. There followed sweeping tariffs and restrictions on a range of Australian exports to China, including wine, beef and coal.