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Australia chooses South Korea for largest-ever defense deal with Asian country

Deal shows Seoul willing to irritate Beijing to secure ties with Canberra

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second left, and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, left, walk with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, J...

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second left, and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, left, walk with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, J... (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Australia and South Korea took their strategic relations to new heights on Monday (Dec. 13) by agreeing to a new defense deal worth US$717 million (NT$19,861 billion).

The deal’s announcement marked the climax of a four-day visit to Canberra by South Korean President Moon Jae-in — the first foreign leader to visit Australia since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, according to an Al Jazeera report.

Hanwha, a South Korean defense company, has signed on to supply the Australian army with cutting-edge artillery weapons, supply vehicles, and radars. It represents the largest defense contract between Australia and an Asian nation in history, and it comes just months after Canberra joined the AUKUS pact with the U.K. and U.S., much to the chagrin of China.

Indeed, experts believe Moon’s visit shows Seoul is prepared to go out of its way to deepen its friendship with Australia, despite knowing it will potentially take heat from China as a consequence.

“At the end of his single five-year term and in the midst of the pandemic, it has to be quite important to signal a degree of support and comfort with Australia’s membership of the Quad and the AUKUS agreement,” said Bill Paterson, Australia’s former ambassador to Seoul.

Indeed, the outcomes of recent meetings between South Korean leaders and their Chinese and Australian counterparts show that, despite the importance of the country’s trade relations with China, Seoul places greater trust in American allies like Australia when it comes to security. When South Korea’s National Security Adviser Suh Hoon met with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) in Tianjin this month, though pleasantries and talk of bilateral friendships were swapped, no concrete plans of any kind were announced.

China and South Korea will commemorate 30 years of diplomatic ties next year, Australia and South Korea have diplomatic connections going back 60 years. The countries have a long military relationship, with about 18,000 Australians fighting alongside South Korean forces in the Korean War — in which China fought on the other side.

The two countries also share strong economic ties, with South Korea being Australia’s fourth-largest trading partner, bolstered by a free trade agreement that took effect in 2014. Now Morrison and Moon have agreed to upgrade the official status of their relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”