Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have signed a $717m defence deal.
Worth about 1 billion Australian dollars, the contract was signed on Monday during a four-day visit by Moon to Canberra. The South Korean president is the first foreign leader to visit Australia since the pandemic began.
The new defence deal will see South Korean defence company Hanwha provide the Australian army with artillery weapons, supply vehicles and radars.
It is the largest defence contract struck between Australia and an Asian nation, and comes at a time of heightened tensions between Australia and China.
Australia recently announced a deal to build nuclear-powered submarines in a partnership, dubbed AUKUS, with the United States and the United Kingdom — a move that China has strongly condemned.
Morrison said the new defence contract would create about 300 jobs in Australia, where a division of Hanwha operates.
“The contract that we have signed today, I think, speaks volumes about what we believe are the capabilities of the Korean defence industry,” he said.
“It’s an important further chapter in the defence industry story for Australia as we continue to build our sovereign capability and Korea is an important partner in that journey – both in our security arrangements, but also in the building of our sovereign capability in defence manufacturing.”
Moon said South Korea had similar values to Australia when it came to its geopolitical outlook and said his Canberra visit “is very important for the national interest of Korea and to promote peace and prosperity in the region”.
But he also said that South Korea’s relationship with China was important, particularly when it came to pursuing peace with North Korea.
“Therefore, South Korea is focused on the steadfast alliance with the US and also with China,” Moon said. “We want a harmonised relationship.”
The South Korean president also ruled out joining a US-led diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, saying he was “not considering” such a move.
Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have joined Washington’s campaign, citing concern over alleged human rights abuses in China.
A top diplomat in Canberra told the ABC broadcaster that Moon had calculated it was worth travelling to Australia to strengthen ties despite possible repercussions from China.
“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, a former diplomat who served as Australia’s ambassador to Seoul until 2016.
“[The] Koreans have obviously taken a view that they want to send a positive signal to Australia both strategically and economically – and are prepared to take some measure of risk in this.”
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said his government was committed to keeping the region safe, and the new contract would help modernise the Australian army.
“The prime ability of the new vehicles is to fire and move quickly, avoiding enemy counterattack,” Dutton said. “This project will mean a significant increase in the level of firepower and security for Australian artillery capability.”
South Korea is Australia’s fourth-largest trading partner and fourth-largest export market under a free trade agreement that has been in force since 2014.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
During their talks, Morrison and Moon agreed to upgrade the formal ties between their nations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.
The leaders also said they would work together on developing clean energy technologies, including hydrogen, and on facilitating the supply of critical minerals, which Australia has in abundance.