CANBERRA, Australia Australia will bolster its naval strength with more submarines and warships as part of a long-term military buildup needed to maintain peace in the Asia-Pacific region, the prime minister said Thursday.
Australia plans to double the size of its submarine fleet to 12 as well as commissioning three additional destroyers, nine anti-submarine frigates and 12 patrol boats.
The naval increase is at the centre of a planned 20-year military modernization calculated to deal with future threats, including tensions in the South China Sea where China, Australia’s most important trade partner, is aggressively staking territorial claims.
“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,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
The United States will remain the pre-eminent global military power and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner over the next two decades, the plan said.
Australia is not taking sides in the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea and has resisted U.S. pressure to risk angering China by sailing near one of the Beijing-controlled islands in the Paracel chain.
On Monday, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said it would be valuable for Australia and other countries to conduct so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea within China’s territorial claim.
“It’s up to those countries, but I think it’s in our best interests to make sure that those sea lines remain open,” U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin told reporters in Sydney.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott plans to use a speech in Tokyo on Friday to step up pressure on Australia to conduct such a freedom of navigation exercise, The Australian newspaper reported Thursday.
“We should exercise our right to freedom of navigation wherever international law permits, because this is not something that the U.S. should have to police on its own,” Abbott will reportedly say.
Abbott’s spokesman did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls on Thursday.
Turnbull, who replaced Abbott in September, declined to say whether the Australian Defence Force would conduct such an operation.
“We support and practice freedom of navigation in accordance with international law, but we are not going to canvass, forecast future ADF operations,” Turnbull told reporters.
Australia will announce this year whether Japan, Germany or France will build the next-generation diesel-electric replacements for the six Australian Collins-class submarines.
The plan estimates the subs, which will have a high degree of interoperability with the United States, will cost at least 56 billion Australian dollars ($40 billion).
The plan requires Australia to increase defence spending by AU$30 billion over the next decade.