Moon Jae-in’s welcome visit an act of subtle resistance
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is an accomplished Confucian leader, which means, among other things, that he speaks politely and in restrained terms. So he’s never going to speak about China in the way Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton do, even though China, and its ally North Korea, are much bigger threats to South Korea than to Australia.
But a Confucian culture delivers messages of solidarity and resistance in its own way. Mr Moon’s visit to Australia, in the midst of all the Covid travel difficulties, is immensely important.
And at a time when the Beijing leadership demonises the Australian government in every way it can, Mr Moon declared that South Korea and Australia are “like-minded nations”. That’s a strong endorsement, a strong gesture of friendship.
It doesn’t matter that the President speaks a little more softly on China than his Australian colleagues do. His visit itself is the message. This visit is an act of great solidarity with Australia.
The defence contracts are important, our biggest ever with an Asian partner (Paul Keating should praise this deal as seeking our security with Asia rather than against it), and so are the energy collaborations, and in particular the trade diplomacy. South Korea is a major relationship for Australia, one that embraces both our past and our future.
It is a relationship of the highest importance that impinges way too little on the national consciousness. One of the many dolorous consequences of our long China infatuation, from which we are just waking up, is that it led us, as a nation, to neglect other Asian powers and other Asian cultures.
South Korea is our fourth largest export market and, like us, is a fellow democracy and intimate military ally of the US.
The contract to build us 30 self-propelled howitzers in some senses is not all that significant – the howitzers themselves are not a critical, or strategic, capability –but we earnt much ill will with the South Koreans on this front by changing our mind on this capability in the past.
The Prime Minister dropped a heavy hint that South Korea’s Hanwha was now very well placed to win the potential $30bn contract to build our heavy infantry fighting vehicle. In fact, such vehicles are a waste of money for Australia, given our security challenge is maritime.
The government should massively reduce that commitment and devote the resources to maritime capacity that can be delivered quickly instead. The sheer irrational, unchangeable inertia of Defence means that probably won’t happen, so if we are going to waste money on heavy armour for the army, which will never be used, we should at least waste it with a close Asian friend rather than a distant European friend.
Strategic considerations ought to incline us towards South Korea if the decision is line-ball or they are even remotely competitive, just as we should have given much greater weight to strategic considerations and gone with the Japanese for our conventional submarine back in 2015.
It is overwhelmingly in our interests to forge the deepest military and security relationships with both Japan and South Korea. It is also in our interests that they both become defence equipment exporters and play the maximum role they can in Indo-Pacific security.
To that end, it is also very good news that South Korea now wants to join the hideously named Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (this ugly, stuttering, acronym freighted wordiness is a Canadian abomination).
The long-term aim must still be to get the US back into the CPP, but that remains apparently impossible for the moment. Like-minded nations with something approaching genuine market economies strengthen the CPP. South Korea is a natural partner.
Neither Japan nor Australia should ever agree to Beijing joining. It does not live up to trade rules of a CPP style and is working hard to hurt our strategic interests across the board.
Mr Moon is a welcome visitor.
The Australian system must now follow through on all the dimensions of co-operation with a critically important Asian partner.