South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup (left) and Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles pose for a photo during the bilateral talks on Thursday in Canberra, Australia. (Ministry of National Defense)
The South Korean and Australian defense chiefs agreed to enhance defense cooperation in a wide range of areas, including the arms industry and military exercises. The two leaders also noted the significance of defense partnerships between like-minded countries in maintaining regional stability.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles met Thursday in Canberra, Australia, and discussed a wide range of security issues, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The defense-ministerial meeting was held to implement agreements made at the South Korea-Australia summit and the Asia-Pacific partners (AP4) leaders’ meeting, which were held on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June in Madrid. The leaders of South Korea, Australia, Japan and New Zealand participated for the first time in the NATO summit as NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners, which provoked a backlash from China.
S. Korea, Australia share values
During the talks, Lee and Marles agreed on the necessity of enhancing defense cooperation between the two countries, which share liberal democratic values, and the implications of this cooperation for security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Marles said bilateral coordination between the two countries who share values will “greatly contribute to building a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Marles also expressed his hope to “strengthen defense and arms industry cooperation with South Korea, a friendly country to Australia, over the next 10 years,” underscoring that Australia is at a critical juncture in terms of force restructuring.
Marles briefed Lee on Australia’s plans to “dramatically reinforce the country’s defense capabilities” over the next 10 years and complete its 10-year Defense Strategic Review by next year, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
The review aims to comprehensively examine force structure, force posture and preparedness, and investment prioritization to ensure the defense force has the right capabilities to meet global and regional security challenges.
Broad range of defense partnership
During the talks, the South Korean and US defense chiefs agreed to reinforce military cooperation through existing consultative bodies that have been operated between their respective Defense Ministries as well as their army, navy, air force and other units including the biennial 2+2 dialogue between foreign and defense ministers.
As part of these efforts, Lee and Marles committed to “further reinvigorating cooperation in the fields of defense science and technology, outer space and the arms industry.”
Both sides also shared the view of reinforcing cooperation in conducting bilateral and regional military exercises.
South Korea and Australia have conducted bilateral naval drills, code-named “Haedoli Wallaby,” since 2012. South Korea and Australia are also participating in the Pacific Dragon multilateral ballistic missile defense exercise that kicked off Monday and continues until Aug. 14.
Lee and Marles addtionally reaffirmed that the two countries will continue to cooperate in achieving North Korea’s denuclearization and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Lee said Australia has actively supported the Yoon Suk-yeol government’s North Korea policy by faithfully implementing sanctions on North Korea. Australia has taken the initiative in supporting international efforts to monitor and deter illegal ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned goods by periodically deploying military assets through its Operation Argos.
Implications of meeting
The defense-ministerial meeting is noteworthy given that it shows Australia puts a high priority on South Korea.
Lee’s visit marks the first visit by a foreign defense leader to Australia for a defense ministerial meeting since Marles was inaugurated as a defense minister in June. South Korea’s Defense Ministry earlier this week said Marles invited Lee to visit Australia.
The meeting between Lee and Marles also comes after Marles’ visit to India, Japan and the US -- the other three members of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad – where he met his counterparts in June and July.
But at the same time, Australia’s move to reinforce its partnership with South Korea comes as bilateral relations between Australia and China have been at a low ebb.
Australia is a key country in the US’ Indo-Pacific engagement strategy. Australia is part of the four-member Quad, as well as the Aukus trilateral security pact consisting of Australia, the US, and the UK, which aims to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarine capability.
Defense industry cooperation
Meanwhile, Lee and Marles plan to visit the city of Geelong in the Australian state of Victoria, where South Korea’s Hanwha Defense is building a new facility to produce K-9 self-propelled howitzers on Friday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
In December 2021, Australia signed a defense contract worth 1 billion Australian dollars ($701 million) with Hanwha Defense for supplying K-9 self-propelled howitzers.
Marles proposed the trip to his hometown Geelong, which along with surrounding areas, he currently represents as the Federal Member for Corio.
Lee said the co-visit to the factory will “symbolically show the future of defense industry cooperation between the two countries,” according to South Korea‘s Defense Ministry. Lee also underscored that K-9 self-propelled howitzers will “greatly contribute to strengthening Australia’s military capabilities, enhancing interoperability between forces and developing the local economy.”
Hanwha Defense also seeks to be selected as a preferred bidder for the Australian Army’s LAND 400 Phase 3 project. The country’s biggest and most expensive acquisition project aims to procure up to 450 infantry fighting vehicles to replace M113 armored personnel carriers, which have been in service since the mid-1960s.
Hanwha Defense and Germany’s Rheinmetall have been selected as two shortlisted contenders for the project. Hanwha Defense’s Redback and Rheinmetall’s Lynx completed Risk Mitigation Activity trials, which assess the capability of vehicles, in October 2021.