Australia is looking to boost its military power in the northwest to protect its booming offshore oil and gas sector and counter new challenges from China and the Indian Ocean, said Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
The shift, being considered in a defence posture review, could see new amphibious assault ships and the planned Joint Strike Fighters based across Australia’s sprawling north and western coastlines, where resource companies have invested billions in offshore oil and gas projects.
The posture review would also consider strategic challenges from the Indian Ocean rim and reflect the growth of military power in the Asia Pacific, although Smith said the shift was not focused on China’s rising muscle, Reuters reports.
“We are confident China will emerge as … a responsible stakeholder. As the Chinese would say, into a harmonious environment. We are confident of that,” Smith said. “There is more than one country in the Asia Pacific.”
The United States, Australia’s top strategic ally, also plans to increase its Asia Pacific presence. Smith said Australia’s review would complement a similar review under way in Washington.
China’s growing military power has alarmed other countries in the region, especially Japan and Taiwan. In March, China said it would boost defence spending by 12.7 percent in 2011 and has made modernising its navy a priority.
India is also building a blue-water navy to extend its strategic reach, while modernising its armed forces.
Australia is considering building up to 12 new long-range submarines and has committed $7.6 billion for three powerful air warfare destroyers, due in service from 2015.
Australia is also aiming to buy 100 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, to complement the fleet of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, currently based in Queensland, New South Wales and the remote Northern Territory.
The boom resource state of Western Australia has a major navy base near the capital Perth, and is home to the country’s elite Special Air Service forces, but there are no major military bases in the state’s north, facing Asia.
Smith said security of energy resources from offshore oil and gas projects off Western Australia and the Northern Territory posed a new security challenge.
“I do see very much an expanding petroleum resources industry off the coast of northwest Western Australia and off the coast of the Northern Territory as a significant security consideration,” he said.
“There is a prospect we will see more defence assets in Western Australia.”
The region includes the Gorgon oil and gas fields, operated by Chevron , Woodside’s northwest shelf oil and gas fields, the Browse basin targeted by Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) and Woodside’s Sunrise oil and gas fields.
Australia currently has more than $200 billion of proposed liquefied natural gas export projects in the pipeline, and the industry is eyeing a production goal of 60 million tonnes per annum by 2020, triple current production levels.
“This is the appropriate time to do a force structure review, because of the strategic and security factors of the modern era,” Smith said. “As circumstances change, our posture needs to change.”