Jul 12, 2022 - World

Australia's defense minister warns of China's military build-up

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022
Richard Marles speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022. Photo credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images.

Australia's Defense Minister Richard Marles warned of a "military build-up occurring at a rate unseen since World War II" and vowed to strengthen Australian defense during a speech on Monday in Washington, DC.

Why it matters: The remarks laid out a vision for Australia's leading role in Indo-Pacific security, and signaled that Australia's new Labor government will maintain a close security partnership with the U.S. as well as the tough China policies of the two previous governments.

  • Marles became defense minister and deputy prime minister in May when elections swept the Labor party into power, ending nine years of conservative coalition rule.

The big picture: Vice President Kamala Harris told regional leaders gathered in Fiji Tuesday for the annual Pacific Islands Forum that the U.S. will open embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, appoint a U.S. envoy to the region, and reopen a Peace Corps program there.

  • China has sought to establish a foothold in the Pacific Islands region, where Australia has traditionally had great influence.
  • The Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China in April, alarming Canberra and Washington.

What he's saying: "For the first time in decades we are thinking hard about the security of our strategic geography, the viability of our trade and supply routes, and above all the preservation of an inclusive regional order founded on rules agreed by all, not the coercive capabilities of a few," said Marles in his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in D.C.

  • The minister also warned of growing challenges to regional and global security, including cyber threats, supply chain disruptions, the rise of great power competition, and the use of force to push territorial claims.
  • Marles said that his "first priority" will be the trilateral security pact AUKUS, announced in September 2021, which will see the transfer of nuclear submarine and other defense technology from the U.S. and the U.K. to Australia.
  • "For a three-ocean nation, the heart of deterrence is undersea capability. AUKUS will not only make Australia safer, it will make Australia a more potent and capable partner," Marles said.

Between the lines: Marles' speech didn't mentioned China by name, though he did in later remarks, and focused on making a positive case for democratic partnerships rather than publicly lambasting Beijing.

  • "There have been a lot of questions here in Washington on where exactly the Labor government would land on its approach towards Beijing and on a variety of defense policies, including AUKUS," Charles Edel, Australia chair at CSIS, told Axios.
  • "Marles's remarks emphasized that the new Australian government sees China as a destabilizing regional presence and believes its capabilities, sovereignty, and security are all enhanced through its alliance with the United States.”

Go deeper: Pacific nations wary of China's security proposal

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