General Angus Campbell says is more engaged with partners over the South China Sea. is deploying more warships to the South China Sea and working on military bases throughout the Pacific as it wrestles with Beijing’s growing power in the region.
The Navy has slowly increased its presence in the politically-charged waters of the South China Sea over the past five years, figures released to a Senate committee have revealed.
Elsewhere in the region, senior Defence officials are working on plans to develop bases in Fiji and Papua New Guinea to counter China’s rise.
The Navy deployed five ships to the crucial economic and political waters in 2014 for a total of 43 days.
The figure has incrementally crept up since, with eight Navy ships deployed for a total of 254 days in 2017, when a major military exercise took place.
So far this year, eight n ships have spent 60 days in the South China Sea.
Appearing before a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday, Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell said the increase did not simply reflect the fact was “more present” in the region.
“But rather we are more present in engaging with partners throughout the region in an area which transits one third of the global shipping traffic and is the natural route between and our large trading partners,” General Campbell said in Canberra.
The South China Sea, in the Pacific Ocean, is an important commercial gateway for the world’s merchant shipping trade.
It is also the site of various complex territorial disputes which have created conflict and tension.
Meanwhile, Defence officials have been deployed on a “scoping visit” to Manus Island as and PNG work on plans to develop a joint naval base.
The officers surveyed the Lombrum base between August 28 and 30.
“My expectation is that should the n government agree to something like that, we would take the lion’s share of the funding,” Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty told the committee.
Mr Moriarty will travel to PNG next month to discuss the potential expansion, which could prove a key strategic asset.
is already spending $5 million to upgrade a wharf at the facility as it prepares to “gift” PNG four patrol boats.
The government expects to spend $40 million on Defence projects in PNG this financial year.
There is some speculation an announcement on the joint Lombrum base could be made at an APEC summit in PNG next month.
Defence officials have also confirmed there is no price tag attached to a major regional military base is funding in Fiji.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Fijian counterpart in August announced a deal on the Black Rock policing, peacekeeping and pre-deployment base in Nadi.
After questions from Labor’s Penny Wong, Defence officials confirmed there was not yet a “ballpark” figure for the base, nor a memorandum of understanding.
Construction on the base is expected to start next year.