Australia and South Korea sign defense deal as leaders meet

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, is invited to sign a visitor’s book by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. Moon is on a two-day official visit to Australia. (Lukas Coch/Pool Photo via AP)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia and South Korea signed a $720 million defense deal Monday as South Korean President Moon Jae-in became the first foreign leader to visit Australia since the pandemic began.

Worth about 1 billion Australian dollars, the deal will see South Korean defense company Hanwha provide the Australian army with artillery weapons, supply vehicles and radars.

It’s the largest defense 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 with the U.S. and Britain — a move that China has strongly condemned.

Moon met with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during his visit, and the two leaders 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.

Morrison said the new defense 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 defense industry,” Morrison said.

Moon said South Korea had similar values to Australia when it came to its geopolitical outlook, but also that its 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 U.S. and also with China,” Moon said. “We want a harmonized relationship.”

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government was committed to keeping the region safe and the new contract would help modernize 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.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin criticized Australia over its attempts to boost its defenses, at a daily briefing.

Wang accused Australia of “trying to divert attention, draw ideological lines and set up imaginary enemies in the name of democracy and freedom.”

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