Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned that the country must prepare for an emerging arms race across the Asia-Pacific region and has advocated strengthening the Australia Defence Force.

In a speech to the National Congress of the Returned and Services League, Rudd highlighted the modernisation of military forces in Asia and warned that the area might become more hotly contested in future.

“We need to make sure we have an Australian Defence Force that can answer the call if it is needed,” said Rudd.

Rudd said in his speech that the Defence Force would need strengthening in all areas.

“We need an enhanced naval capability that can protect our sea lanes of communication and support our land forces as they deploy, and we need an Air Force that can fill support and combat roles and can deter, defeat and provide assistance to land and maritime forces” said Rudd.

Rudd also highlighted specific areas of military concern

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“We have mainland China and Taiwan still unable to resolve basic questions of sovereignty and we also have unresolved border disputes between many countries including between China and India and between China and its maritime neighbours in the South China Sea. But it is reassuring to note that these disputes have been managed to this point.” said Rudd.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said that economic growth in the region had resulted in a need to prioritise improving and deepening engagement with countries, while still maintaining an ‘insurance policy’ in the form of an adequate defence capability.

“Obviously the economic growth of China in particular has been extraordinary. In historical terms its very, very normal for nation states as they grow in economic power to also grow in defence power as a means of protecting their interests as they can better afford to do so,” Said Fitzgibbon.”

The Government is preparing to release Australia’s first National Security Statement which will spell out how it plans to approach national security challenges.

Expansion of the ADF is not likely to occur, however, until after the defence white paper is completed by the end of the year and released early in 2009.

Government spending on defence is expected to grow at a rate of 3% a year until 2018, but the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, Neil James, has told AM more spending may be needed.

“We can’t actually sustain the current force structure with a 3% increase because it’s not keeping up with the inflation rate,” said James.

By Daniel Garrun.