Wall Street Journal on February 24, 2016, reported that Australia’s government is strengthening its U.S. alliance and plowing ahead with a 10-year, $140 billion military expansion amid rising regional tensions over China’s muscle-flexing on key trade routes in the South China Sea. Excerpts below:

A defense blueprint released by Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on urged Beijing to be more forthcoming about its security intentions in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands.

While stopping short of directly confronting China over their construction, Canberra warned it would have a “major impact” on the stability of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region over coming decades.

The defense paper is Australia’s first since China began building artificial islands on disputed reefs in the South China Sea, upsetting regional neighbors and prompting Washington to challenge Beijing’s claims by mounting freedom of navigation patrols by air and sea. U.S. officials say Beijing is militarizing the region as a way to bolster its maritime claims…

Fresh satellite images suggest China has been building radar facilities on some of the artificial islands, which would increase its military power in the region, a U.S.-based think tank said on February 23. The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the radar installations in the Spratly Islands came days after U.S. and Taiwanese officials said Beijing had placed surface-to-air missiles on the Paracels chain, north of the Spratlys.

A 2009 Australian defense blueprint angered Beijing by saying the pace and scope of China’s military modernization could give its neighbors cause for concern and even lead to conflict.

“We are a maritime power, we are an island nation,” Mr. Turnbull said. “We operate in a region where sea lanes, freedom of access to navigation, where maritime assets in a naval sense are growing, both submarine and surface vessels.”

As much as 60% of Australia’s seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea area, much of it bound for China.

Despite a sharp deterioration in its budget because of tumbling commodity prices and a slowing economy, Australia laid out plans for an ambitious military overhaul including a doubling of its undersea fleet, with 12 new submarines, missile drones, a larger navy and an increase in military numbers.

It also called for greater maritime power with ship-destroying missiles and more military exercises with the U.S. Both countries were working to boost rotations of thousands of U.S. Marines, aircraft and warships through Australia, while also working jointly to develop ballistic-missile shield defenses.

Canberra pledged to lift military spending to 2% of economic output, or around 58 billion Australian dollars (US$42 billion) a year. Spending this fiscal year is roughly A$32 billion.

“These are momentous times. The stakes are high, and as the opportunities expand so does the cost of losing them,” Mr. Turnbull said. “We reject the harsh and cynical assessment that might is right and justice can be found only between equals in power. But equally we know that a strong Australia is essential to enable us to play our part in providing the measured balance upon which regional security depends.”

The rapid rise in Chinese military spending is fueling an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. A recent report by the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research said Australia was the world’s fifth-largest arms buyer last year. Six of the top 10 global arms importers hailed from the region, including India in the top spot and third-ranked China. Russia has also re-emerged as a potential regional player, building up its submarine forces and recently supplying arms to the tiny Pacific nation of Fiji.

Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said on Februay 24 that he has a similar view to U.S. military officials: that China is trying to transform the artificial islands into operational bases.

“China’s behavior is trying to change the status quo unilaterally and push it towards that direction further by accumulating actions,” the Japanese defense minister said.

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