And Mr Morrison also said his country would be teaming up with the United States in expanded war games aimed at ensuring both nations were battle-ready. In an announcement that comes amid an increasingly bitter diplomatic and trade spat with China, Mr Morrison said Australia must expand its military assets in the Northern Territory to be able to respond to unspecified tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.
A total of A$747million (£418million) is being invested, he announced.
Mr Morrison told reporters: “Our objective is a free and open Indo-Pacific, to ensure a peaceful region, one that, at the same time, Australia is in a position to always protect its interests.”
He avoided naming China – but Australia’s prioritising of the Indo-Pacific comes against a backdrop of increasing competition between the two in the region in recent years.
Relations deteriorated sharply last year, after Canberra demanded an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, triggering trade reprisals by Beijing.
Mr Morrison said an airstrip in the Northern Territory will be lengthened to support larger aircraft, firing ranges overhauled and new training facilities developed for both Australia’s own defence personnel and US marines.
The military upgrades will get underway this year and are scheduled to be completed by 2026.
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The funds come from an Australian defence plan which will see Canberra spend $270 billion in the next decade to improve Canberra’s long-range strike capabilities, with the country increasing defence spending by 40 percent over the course of the next decade.
Speaking last year, Mr Morrison said the extra funding was needed as the Asia-Pacific region was experiencing the greatest level of economic and strategic uncertainty since World War II – again, without singling out China.
Australia’s assertive approach has gone down well in Washington, and Morrison said the new facilities will enhance joint military drills with the US
More than 2,000 US Marines have already travelled to northern Australia to take part in annual joint training activities.
Australia and the United States also hold war games twice a year, with the next due to begin in August.
In the past, more than 30,000 troops have taken part in the drills, which happen off Australia’s east coast.
Michael Goldman, Charge d’Affaires at the US embassy in Canberra, said: “The United States and Australia have been deeply engaged in defence cooperation for over half a century.
“We will continue to look for additional ways to partner with Australia, as our ally, to advance the security and prosperity of Americans, Australians, and the peoples of the Indo-Pacific region.”
The announcement comes hard on the heels of a claim by Mike Pezzullo, Australia’s Home Affairs Department Secretary, that liberal democracies must brace themselves for war.
Mr Pezzulo did not offer a specific reason for his remark, but tensions with China, particularly centred on Taiwan, are almost certainly a factor.
Speaking on Sunday, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton also said a conflict between China and Taiwan “should not be discounted”.
Last week the Australian Government used new powers to block up two deals struck between the state of Victoria and Beijing in accordance with the Belt and Road outward investment initiative.
The move prompted an angry reaction from the Chinese embassy in Australia, which branded the move “provocative”
In a statement, it claimed the decision was “bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations, and will only end up hurting itself.”
It added: “It further shows that the Australian government has no sincerity in improving China-Australia relations.”