Australia to Review Its Military as U.S.-China Tensions Rise

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SYDNEY—Australia’s new government launched a wide-ranging review of its military, reflecting concerns among some U.S. allies that the growing U.S.-China rivalry is increasing the risk of armed conflict in Asia and the Pacific.

The review will be the most significant reassessment of Australia’s military in decades, said Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, who has been in the job less than three months. The review will determine what capabilities should be a priority for investment and where those assets should be deployed given the rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific, officials said.

“It’s a fast-changing environment,” said Angus Houston, who was formerly the highest-ranking officer in the Australian military and was appointed to help lead the reassessment. “It’s absolutely imperative that we review the current strategic circumstances, which I rate the worst I have ever seen in my career and lifetime.”

The announcement came the same day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in Taiwan. Her visit angered Beijing and sparked renewed worries across the region of military conflict—though Australian officials had previously flagged that the review was in the works. Other U.S. allies, including Germany and Japan, have also previously said they would increase military spending in response to new threats from China and Russia.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen welcomed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taipei on Wednesday amid growing U.S.-China tensions. Pelosi reiterated her support for cooperation between both governments. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office/Reuters

Australian troops have joined U.S. forces in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but overall, Australia’s military is relatively small, has largely been focused on defense and has relied on the U.S. for support, defense analysts and former military officials said. But given that a large conflict with China could tie down U.S. resources, there is growing recognition that Australia’s military, called the Australian Defence Force, or ADF, might need to do more on its own, the people said.

“We used to make the assumption the ADF didn’t have to maintain large stocks of its own munitions, because in any regional conflict we assumed we could draw on American stocks,” said Stephan Fruehling, a professor at Australian National University who focuses on defense policy. “If you’re thinking about a global conflict where the U.S. is majorly engaged, then obviously the U.S. is not going to be able to resupply in quite the same way.”

A 2020 strategic update from Australia’s defense department found that the prospect of high-intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, though still remote, was less remote than in the past. It recommended that Australia develop more potent capabilities, including longer range strike weapons, to hold adversaries further from Australian shores. And it said the previous assumption that Australia would have 10 years to prepare for a conflict was no longer accurate—something Mr. Marles highlighted Wednesday.

“We are in the 10-year window,” said Mr. Marles, who became defense minister after an election in May ushered in a new center-left government.

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Under the center-right government led by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia had already taken steps to beef up its defenses. Last year, Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. entered a new defense partnership called Aukus, which will help Australia get nuclear-powered submarines. Mr. Morrison’s government also picked two U.S. defense manufacturers to help build guided weapons in the country, and said that Australia would seek to increase the size of its military by 30% to nearly 80,000 uniformed personnel over the next two decades.

Relations between Australia and China deteriorated in 2020 after Mr. Morrison pushed for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, China warned its citizens not to travel to Australia and placed restrictions or tariffs on certain Australian imports such as coal, barley and wine.

Australia’s alliance with the U.S. has bipartisan support and the country’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has supported the Aukus pact. Ties between Australia and China have thawed slightly since Mr. Albanese came to power, though there have been little if any policy changes.

“The context in which this review takes place is well known,” Mr. Albanese said Wednesday. “We live in an era where there’s strategic competition and increased tension in our region, and where China has taken a more aggressive posture.”

Analysts said the review will likely look at how to quickly enhance Australia’s long-range strike capabilities and beef up its navy without ballooning the military budget, given that the federal government took on a lot of debt during the coronavirus pandemic. One important question facing Australian military planners is what to do until the new nuclear-powered submarines arrive, which could help provide long-range strike capabilities but won’t be ready until about the 2040s, when Australia’s current fleet of diesel-electric submarines will be old and obsolete.

“The federal government is in a pretty difficult financial position at the moment,” said Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the government-backed Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former senior public servant in the defense department. “They are going to have to find a way to do more, to do it quickly, but with basically the same amount of resources.”

Write to Mike Cherney at mike.cherney@wsj.com

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