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Australian military eyes Indo-Pacific challenges

CANBERRA -- Australia announced a significant boost to its military air power on Friday, committing to buy up to 100 new Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, as it shifts its focus back to the Indo-Pacific as China and India beef up forces.

After more than a decade of having forces first in Iraq, and then Afghanistan, Australia wants to focus on the military challenges closer to home, in line with U.S. President Barack Obama's 2011 “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific.

In a new defense strategy, Australia reinforces that the United States remains its closest ally, but also struck a conciliatory tone towards top trading partner China, noting its rising defense capabilities are a natural outcome from its growing economy.

“The government does not approach China as an adversary. Rather, its policy is aimed at encouraging China's peaceful rise and ensuring that strategic competition in the region does not lead to conflict,” the defense strategy said.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying noted Australia's assessment of China in the document “as a partner and not an opponent” and its view that the country's development was “beneficial to the region and world.”

“We believe this embodies Australia's emphasis on developing China-Australia relations,” she told a news briefing.

As part of Australia's military buildup, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said Canberra was committed to purchasing several squadrons of F-35s and would also buy 12 Boeing Co. EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes, modified versions of the 24 Super Hornets already equipping Australia's air force.

“This important decision will assure a first-class air combat capability for Australia through the transition period to the Joint Strike Fighter, which will proceed on its current schedule,” Defense Minister Stephen Smith said.

Canberra's decision reinforces positive steps for the F-35, coming on the heels of a decision by Norway to buy six F-35s a year earlier than planned, and the Dutch parliament's decision not to reassess F-35 rivals to replace aging F-16s, despite cost overruns and development delays.

Australia's first two F-35s are due to be delivered in the United States in 2014-15. Australia will initially buy 14 F-35s, building up to three operational squadrons, of around 75 planes. The first squadron is due in service from around 2020.

The decision to stick with the F-35 will give Australia a mixed fleet of Super Hornets, Growlers and the new stealth fighters, matching the U.S. Navy capability until at least 2030, Smith said.

The government also holds the option of buying a further 25 F-35s after 2030, to replace the Super Hornets when they are withdrawn from service, bringing the total of F-35s to 100.

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