Chinese influence 'phenomenal': Dutton

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Defence Minister Peter Dutton has labelled China's expanding influence as "quite phenomenal" while warning Australians of the danger and uncertainty ahead.

Mr Dutton said Australia was trying to maintain a peaceful Pacific region, but the world was facing tough times.

"I don't think we should pretend to the Australian people that we don't live in an uncertain time," he said during a debate at the National Press Club on Thursday with Labor counterpart Brendan O'Connor.

"It is a tough market. And as we're seeing right across the region, in fact right across the world, China's influence into Africa, their influence into broader Asia, their influence into even Europe is quite phenomenal."

Mr Dutton said his government was helping make Australia safer and stronger by investing in the defence force.

He took aim at Labor at having cut defence spending when they last formed government.

Mr O'Connor defended his party's track record, saying the region's situation had changed amid rising tensions with China, and Labor had backed the country joining the security pact AUKUS.

"We know China has changed," he said.

"We know it's now more assertive, more aggressive, more coercive."

When asked if either a coalition or Labor government would accept the first nuclear submarines years earlier if they were majority-built or assembled overseas, both said it was unlikely.

Mr Dutton said the government's commitment was to see them built in South Australia.

Mr O'Connor said: "Ideally, you build defence assets here."

Under the AUKUS partnership, Australia will acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with support from the UK and the US.

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