TAIPEI, TAIWAN —
Australia, concerned about its vast regional trade network, is joining Japan, India and the United States in countering Chinese expansion in Asia’s biggest maritime dispute.
Six Australian warships were moving toward the South China Sea this week, with no publicized destination, for military exercises. Australian media has called the mission their country’s largest in 30 years.
“There is certainly a view in some quarters in Australia that one of Australia’s contributions to diplomacy and international affairs in Asia is as a security player,” said Jeffrey Wilson, a fellow with the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth. “We have a very small defense force, but very high tech, high capacity.”
Australia’s leaders want their electorate, as well as its Asian neighbors, to see Canberra as a defender of rule of law in the South China Sea, consistent with its role since the Cold War, analysts say.
The Australian Department of Defense says that by 2021 it will raise the military budget to 2 percent of GDP, one of the fastest-growing in the Asia Pacific. The budget is $27.4 billion for 2017-2018.
That may effectively help the United States contain China in the sea, where Beijing claims about 90 percent of maritime territory, overlapping the exclusive economic zones of four economically and militarily weaker Southeast Asian states.
U.S. President Donald Trump is more focused on North Korea’s missile buildup than on China’s 7-year-old maritime expansion, a priority of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
“Australia has been trying to fill that void when necessary,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.