Australia signs arms deal with South Korea as US allies seek to ‘stem’ China

Australia has signed a A $ 1 billion (US $ 717 million) contract with South Korean defense firm Hanwha, which will strengthen ties between two US allies, but risks arousing opposition from China.

The agreement to purchase 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armored ammunition supply vehicles is Australia’s largest defense contract with an Asian country. This was announced during President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to Australia, the first visit by a foreign leader to the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our comprehensive strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea is supported by our shared commitment to defense and security cooperation,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday.

“The contract with Hanwha demonstrates the value of industrial collaboration in helping our countries meet mutual security challenges. ”

The two leaders also announced clean energy and essential minerals deals, bolstering their countries’ efforts to secure supply chains in sectors such as batteries and magnets.

Analysts said South Korea’s drive to turn its relationship with Australia into a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” at a time of heightened tensions between Canberra and Beijing was unusually bold.

Seoul has been reluctant to openly take sides in intensifying competition between the United States, its main security ally, and China, its largest trading partner. He has avoided applying for membership in “Quad”, a US-led group that also includes Australia, India and Japan.

Australia elicited a strong reaction from China in September when it announced a new military partnership known as Aukus to build nuclear submarines with the United States and the United Kingdom. The pact was designed to counter Beijing’s military assertion in the Asia-Pacific region.

Canberra also recently said it would join a US-led diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February on human rights grounds.

“This agreement takes South Korea a step towards a closer defense relationship with Australia, which in turn could signal that it is integrating more closely with the American strategy in the Indo-Pacific, at know the containment of China, “said Go Myong-hyun, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies think tank in Seoul.

Moon, however, stressed his attachment to good relations with Beijing.

“South Korea is focused on the steadfast alliance with the United States and also with China,” Moon said. “We want a harmonized relationship.

Go said that “no matter how much Seoul tries to argue that it is equidistant from the United States and China, deals like this will increase the perception in Beijing that it is drifting inexorably towards Washington.”

Australia has also signed several recent defense agreements aimed at addressing a more assertive China, the latest of which, announced last week, that it would abandon its European-made military helicopters for US planes.

Rory Medcalf, director of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra, said Moon’s visit would help dispel perceptions that Australia was prioritizing “the Anglosphere” over relations with its countries. Asian allies.

“President Moon’s visit is a refreshing reminder that Australia has a more nuanced and diverse set of partners than just Aukus or the Quad,” Medcalf said.

“It is also a pragmatic signal from South Korea that they recognize the growing convergence with Australia as a partner. We are both middle powers, we both fight against Chinese coercion and we are both broadly comfortable with the US alliance system and want to influence it.