[Column] A call for K-defense from Australia
The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I visited the site of the 2023 Australian Avalon International Airshow to cover the “India-Pacific Security Strategy’’ hosted by the Korean Women Journalists Association on March 5. The show opened on Feb. 28 and ended that day, held alongside the aerospace defense industry exhibition participated in by more than 700 companies from various countries. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Hanwha Defense Australia have set up booths to promote the FA-50 light attack aircraft and the fifth-generation AS21 “Redback” infantry fighting vehicle, respectively.
Hanwha Defense is constructing its first overseas production facility in Geelong, where Avalon Airport is located. When completed next year, the plant will produce the AS9 Huntsman — the Australian model of the Thunder self-propelled howitzer — and AS10 ammunition supply armored vehicles for delivery to the Australian Army in 2027. An official from Hanwha I met at the exhibition said he had high hopes for selection as the Redback was custom-designed for the Australian military’s modernization.
The Black Eagles’ first participation in the Avalon Airshow this year coincided with this “defense cooperation.” The key link is Australia’s new defense strategy report to be released as early as next month. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was elected in May 2022, and the Labor Party government reviewed the report over the past six months. The report is in line with the changes in the strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific region. A historic defense budget plan based on this report will be unveiled around May. Down Under is a promising market for Korea’s defense industry, whose reputation is enhanced with the orders from Poland.
The changes of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific that Australia refers to is the rise of China. Geographically, Australia has been relatively safe since World War II, but its regional strategic environment is threatened by China’s rapid rise, said Alex Bristol of the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy (ASPI) in Canberra.
The first is the Aukus — a three-way security consultative body announced in September 2021 with the United Kingdom and the United States. At that time, the three countries agreed to jointly support the construction of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine over the next 18 months. The attention of the world is on Australia, as the blueprint will be unveiled next month.
Australia’s acquisition of a “nuclear submarine” can elevate the tension in the region in connection with China’s military expansion, North Korea’s nuclear missile provocations and Japan’s bolstered security strength. Conscious of this, Australia claims that the new submarine is nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed, and the acquisition and operation will be transparent.
Australia, which recently showed off its guts in the trade friction with China, is very close with the U.S., as a member of the Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance of the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is also connected to QUAD, a four-nation security consultative body with the U.S., India and Japan. Moreover, Australia signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with Japan in January to strengthen military cooperation. It is also active in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (Cptpp) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) led by the Biden administration.
Australia’s move to become a regional power coincides with the changed Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S. Michael Green, director of the Center for American Studies at Sydney University in Australia, explained that in the Cold War era, the U.S. implemented the “hub and spoke” strategy” centering on the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region, but it is diversifying after the rise of China. Rather than the U.S. serving as a hub and having a one-on-one relationship with each ally like a spoke, America wants to reinforce each country’s link with allies to create “hubs and spokes.” The U.S. can lessen the defense budget burden and enhance response capability for “actual battles,” as allies share defense strategies and operating systems. It is why the U.S. is openly welcoming the conciliatory mood between Korea and Japan.
Amid these changes in the security landscape, Australia has upgraded its diplomatic relations with Korea to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2021, is active in joint training such as Pitch Black, and is eager to attract defense investments. Dr. Bristol said that Australia realized from the Ukraine war that it was very important to establish domestic weapon production facilities to protect sovereignty, revealing hopes for the transfer of defense technology through cooperation with Korea. In the rapidly changing Indo-Pacific landscape, it is time for the Korean government to quickly respond to the new trade and defense supply chains.