South Korea and Australia strengthen military ties

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in Australia for a four-day visit, the first in-person trip to Australia by a head of state since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the visit nominally marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, it is a significant boost to the strategic and economic ties between the two countries.

As Washington aggressively escalates tensions with Beijing, Australia and South Korea are official US military allies and host US military bases. South Korea is home to some 28,500 US military personnel and is integrated into US anti-missile systems directed against China. The United States has base agreements for United States Marines, warplanes and warships in Australia, which also houses critical facilities, such as the Pine Gap base in central Australia, which are critical to military operations. Americans in Asia and the Middle East.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia on Monday, December 13, 2021 (Lukas Coch / Pool Photo via AP)

Along with the United States, Japan and India, Australia is a member of the quasi-military alliance known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” which the Biden administration strengthened this year. In addition, the AUKUS pact signed earlier this year with the United States and the United Kingdom provides for the supply of nuclear submarines to Australia.

South Korea is not part of the Quad or the UKUS, but would be quickly involved in any US war against China. Moon said his visit had “nothing to do with our position on China,” but strengthening strategic ties with Australia inevitably draws South Korea more closely into the web of US military alliances and partnerships. strategies in Asia developed by Washington in view of a conflict. with China.

Moon met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday and officially raised the links to a comprehensive strategic partnership. While the South Korean president was careful not to increase tensions with China, his country’s biggest trading partner, he signaled his support for AUKUS, which is undoubtedly targeting Beijing.

Asked about AUKUS, Moon said, “This is a decision made by Australia as a sovereign nation, and we respect it. Australia is making efforts for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. The aggressive nature of the AUKUS deal, however, is betrayed by the supply of attack submarines whose sole purpose is to operate for long periods at great distances from Australia, in waters near mainland China. .

Significantly, in a joint statement, Moon and Morrison repeated Washington’s propaganda directed against China’s maritime and territorial claims in the strategic South China Sea. They called for “respect for international law in the maritime domain” and “respect for the freedom of navigation and overflight … in a context of increasing risks of instability in the maritime domain”.

The United States has steadily increased the “risks of instability” by conducting provocative “freedom of navigation operations” – by deliberately sending American warships into the territorial waters claimed by China around islets under its control in the United States. South China Sea. These waters are not only the strategic lifeline for China’s trade with the world, but are adjacent to its sensitive naval bases on Hainan Island.

At the same time, Moon said South Korea will not join the Biden administration’s latest diplomatic attack on China – the US boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics to which Australia has joined. and a handful of other countries. He said his administration “was not even considering a boycott measure.”

Nevertheless, the military content of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries was evident from the agreements signed by the leaders. These included an A $ 1 billion deal for South Korean defense giant Hanwha to establish a factory in Geelong, Australia, to build 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armored ammunition supply vehicles for the Australian military. in Geelong.

The military contract is the largest ever signed with an Asian country, and the two countries are considering its extension to other weapons. Hanwha will partner with the Australian government to create a center of excellence for armored vehicles in the Geelong region and bid on a $ 30 billion contract to build new infantry fighting vehicles for the Australian military.

Morrison and Moon also signed an agreement to strengthen cooperation on stable supply chains for essential minerals, saying it was “important not only for the two countries but also for the global economy.” Moon said, “Australia, the richest country in the world in mineral resources, and Korea, a major producer of batteries and electric vehicles, play an important role in the global supply chain.

The issue of global supply chains has arisen not only due to the impact of COVID-19 around the world, but also heightened tensions between the United States and China. China is the world’s largest producer of rare earths, accounting for 90% of production. These are essential for the manufacture of sophisticated military equipment, as well as commercial goods. The US military has been pushing to secure critical strategic elements, including rare earths.

While the rare earths present in mineral sands are not “rare” as such, their production is very expensive. the South China Morning Post reported in March that Australian rare earth producer ASM had reached a deal with two regional governments in South Korea to build its first critical mineral processing plant. The plant will be built near major Korean manufacturing companies, including LG Chemical and Samsung SDI, and will start by producing high purity neodymium iron boron powder and titanium powder.

The very fact that Moon visited Australia in person with his accompanying group of officials also underscored the determination of both governments to continue their irresponsible policy of “openness”, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. to get out of hand. The highly infectious variant of Omicron has already gained a foothold in both countries.

To date, the Morrison government has opened Australia’s borders to international workers and students after a symbolic two-week “hiatus” in response to the Omicron variant. Travelers from Japan and South Korea were also subject to the “break”, which has now been lifted. The opening of the borders goes against warnings from health experts that ending restrictions will inevitably lead to an acceleration in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

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