South Korea’s and Australia’s shared future is about a lot more than armoured vehicles
13 Dec 2021|

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s fourth meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, held in Canberra today, built more momentum in the quiet achiever of Australia’s key regional partnerships. Japan, India and the US have had all the publicity (and for good reason given the accelerating Quad and AUKUS agendas). Those paying attention to Indo-Pacific security and the unfolding decoupling in the digital world between the US and China know South Korea is an essential partner.

The relationship between Australia and South Korea has been one with latent potential for at least a couple of decades, seeming to need something that could turn that latency into real cooperation. Covid-19, China and high-technology decoupling might be the catalysts we needed.

The Moon–Morrison meeting follows the September meeting of Australian and South Korean foreign and defence ministers. That ‘2+2’ showed South Korea is now very clearly taking its role in Indo-Pacific security seriously. It also demonstrated the impressive technological sweep of South Korea’s economy and the contribution the country can make in areas from public health to critical minerals and space to supply chains.

South Korea is one of the planet’s ‘big tech’ leaders in both the commercial and defence worlds (think LG, Samsung, Hyundai, Hanwha, Korea Aerospace Industries, LIG Nex1 and others) so it must be part of growing minilateral and bilateral cooperation to make high-technology supply chains more resilient and less vulnerable to natural or state-directed shocks.

In sheer strategic and defence terms, South Korea shifted from its sole focus on the threat from North Korea several years ago and has been pursuing a force structure for its military that is able to play a part in deterring conflict in the wider region. Seoul is showing strategic imagination that’s being translated into real military capability in a timely way.

This shift in focus is the only reasonable explanation for building up its navy’s surface and sub-surface capabilities to provide more offensive firepower and conduct wider regional engagements, with an aircraft carrier program being the most obvious symbol of this greater strategic reach. South Korea’s force-projection capabilities are not just maritime, though. In its latest mid-term defence plan, released in 2020, the South Korean government invested in independent surveillance and reconnaissance, and precision strike capabilities. Its development of widely capable missile and missile-defence systems has broader application than only deterring Pyongyang.

All these developments provide a platform for defence-to-defence cooperation from research and development to operational concepts and shared capabilities between Australia and South Korea.

The more important area for Moon and Morrison to work on, though, is the high-technology one that encompasses low-emissions technologies, space, critical-minerals, semi-conductors, artificial intelligence and uncrewed systems. The good news is that the foreign and defence ministers’ meeting shows this is starting to happen, with most of these areas picked out for direct bilateral cooperation.

There are two big moves open to provide more substance and momentum to this nicely developing bilateral. One is in the traditional defence realm and would be South Korea winning the multi-billion-dollar contract to supply up to 450 heavy, tracked, crewed infantry fighting vehicles to the Australian Army. Morrison and Moon signed the already announced, smaller $1billion contract for Korea’s Hanwha to build 30 self-propelled tracked howitzers for the army on this trip, but that’s tiny in comparison with the infantry fighting vehicle program. It’s too early for Defence to have finished its evaluation of the German and South Korean options, so we shouldn’t expect any announcement during this visit.

While it makes no strategic sense for Australia to be spending between $18 and $27 billion on these armoured vehicles (because no one can say where Australia would need to deploy them for any sensible purpose in our region) were South Korea to win the contract, the resulting program could be more important for its by-products than for the vehicles themselves.

Australia would have to build a deep technical working relationship with South Korean industry and its government research and development efforts, and this relationship could be used for cooperation on more useful capabilities that both countries need like missiles, small satellites, new energy systems for military purposes and unmanned systems. That’s an indirect way to extract value from a dubious army armoured vehicle program, but if it’s really going to proceed, then it makes sense to extract benefits out of it that matter to our strategic environment.

Moon’s visit now signals some alignment with Australia on the bigger strategic picture around the Quad, AUKUS and the systemic challenge posed by China but without him needing to bind South Korea to this publicly. Seoul might work with the Quad, but is unlikely to join it, and similarly might watch and benefit from the increasing deterrent capabilities the AUKUS partners will bring to the region, but where South Korea may find it easier and more productive to make a difference is through showing how its government departments and agencies work closely and productively with its ‘big tech’ firms.

ASPI’s Sydney Dialogue would be the right forum for this, because unlike the Quad and AUKUS, it’s about bringing governments and their key technology firms together, with a focus on common goals. It’s about changing the largely adversarial and regulatory relationship that governments like those of the US and Australia (along with the EU) have with the ‘big tech’ world. The centrality of the digital world for everyone’s future makes this approach divisive and counterproductive, and the systemic challenge from the tightly coupled authoritarian Chinese state–corporate model is forcing rapid change which requires closer government–industry cooperation.

Given this, the most obvious step available right now to inject substance beyond the government-to-government discussions is for Morrison to invite South Korea to participate in the 2022 Sydney Dialogue on emerging and critical technologies. This would take advantage of a key South Korean strength by connecting the strategic and defence aspects of our bilateral relationship to the economic and technological ones.

If we understand our strategic environment and the future of our digital world as it is affected by this, the future of the relationship won’t be about South Korea equipping the Australian Army with tracked howitzers and large armoured fighting vehicles.

Instead, it will be through deeper cooperation in the areas of strength that South Korea’s defence organisation and military are pursuing and that are relevant to maritime and air power, missiles, space and strike capabilities. And in a bigger strategic way, it will be through the contribution that the unique partnership between South Korea’s government and its ‘big tech’ sector can make to how the world’s powerful and creative democracies can harness the digital world for common prosperity, security and wellbeing—as I hope to hear from Korean president’s presentation at next year’s Sydney Dialogue.