SYDNEY (AFP) — Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flagged an increase in defence spending Wednesday as he warned the country's military must start preparing for an arms build-up in Asia and the Pacific.
Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat elected as leader last November, said Australia was "in a region where there is an explosion in defence expenditure."
"There has been an arms race under way -- well, an arms build-up, let me put it in those terms -- in the Asia-Pacific region for the better part of the last decade," he told reporters in the northern city of Townsville.
"Therefore Australia must be prepared through its diplomacy, its foreign policy and its defence policy."
Rudd said a major priority would be to shore up Australia's naval capabilities as rising powers like China and India grow more prosperous and influential.
"We are looking at a time in the Asia-Pacific region and world history where, for the first time in several hundred years, we are going to have powers other than Anglo-Saxon powers who will be the dominant players in the world," he said.
"For the government, a major priority is to ensure we have enough naval capabilities in the future, enough naval assets, enough naval performance, and therefore enough funding put aside to invest in that, long-term," he added.
In a speech to veterans late Tuesday, Rudd said there was a strengthening of military forces in the Asia-Pacific region, which has several "unresolved flash-points" arising from territorial disputes.
"As nations grow and become more affluent, they also update their military forces," he said. "We see a substantial arms build-up over time."
He said that unless Australia began to respond to this, "we run the risk of competition and tension overriding cooperation."
"We need an enhanced naval capability that can protect our sea lanes of communication and support our land forces as they deploy, and we need an air force that can fill support and combat roles and can deter, defeat and provide assistance to land and maritime forces," he said.
Rudd did not put a figure on his proposal, saying no decision would be made until he received a defence white paper outlining the future needs of the military later this year.
In May, Rudd said Australia's defence budget would increase by 3.0 percent to around 22.6 billion dollars (18.2 billion US) and pledged to extend real growth in defence spending by 3.0 percent a year until 2018.
But Neil James, head of the independent Australian Defence Association, said even a 3.0 percent increase in real terms was unlikely to be enough to rebuild the military into Rudd's idea of a "balanced force."
James said Rudd's comments indicated he understood that Australia, as an island reliant on export revenues, needed to pay more attention to protecting its sea lanes, and should focus on previously neglected areas such as infantry.
"He specifically mentioned that the army should be capable of high-end engagement which some advocates of an imbalanced defence force have always argued against; they have said we only need a army which is lightly equipped because they are only ever going to have to police the South Pacific," he told AFP. "And Rudd has consciously rejected that."
Defence analyst Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, said Rudd was right to highlight Asia's changing security landscape.
"You've got to ask yourself why are countries like China building up their armed forces as quickly as they are," White told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"I think the key reason is we're seeing emerging, intensifying strategic competition between the US and China for primacy, and I don't think we can just assume the US will come out on top of that."
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