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Australia Steps Up Military Overhaul With Korea Arms Deal


SYDNEY—Australia signed a contract worth about $717 million to buy self-propelled howitzers from South Korea, broadening its military cooperation as it seeks to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The contract, while relatively small, marks the latest step in Australia’s efforts to overhaul its military to create a larger, more powerful force that also includes acquiring nuclear-powered submarines using U.S. technology and building its own guided missiles. Last year, the government said it would spend roughly $186 billion over 10 years on high-tech defense programs including long-range missiles, offensive cyber capabilities and radar surveillance.

Australia awarded the contract for 30 self-propelled howitzers, 15 armored ammunition-resupply vehicles and weapon-locating radars to the local unit of South Korean weapons maker

Hanwha Corp.

In doing so, Australia is stepping beyond two security pacts involving the U.S.—AUKUS and the Quad—that underpin its efforts to counterbalance China’s military power in the Indo-Pacific. South Korea isn’t a member of either alliance.

Peter Dutton,

Australia’s defense minister, said the artillery being purchased from South Korea would enable its army to fire and move quickly, helping them to avoid enemy counterattack. The military equipment will be manufactured at a new facility at Geelong, near Melbourne.

For South Korea, supplying weapons to countries such as Australia needs to be balanced against China’s ability to sway behavior by a nuclear-armed North Korea.

In translated remarks, South Korean President

Moon Jae-in

said his visit to Australia this week had “nothing to do with our position over China” and the arms deal was important to South Korea’s national interest while helping the economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australia has warned of a worsening security environment in the Indo-Pacific region as its relations with China deteriorate. China was angered over Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call last year for an international investigation into the first outbreak of Covid-19 in China, and has imposed a series of import restrictions and tariffs on Australian products including coal, beef and barley.

This year, Australia established the AUKUS security partnership with the U.S. and the U.K., under which the U.S. will help Australia to build nuclear-powered submarine capabilities and deepen security cooperation in cyberspace, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. The pact effectively terminated a deal with France to build conventional submarines, angering its European ally, which called the decision a betrayal.

On Friday, Australia said it would seek to buy up to 40 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. to replace its troubled MRH-90 Taipan fleet, used by the Australian Army as its utility helicopter. Mr. Dutton said Australia’s MRH-90 fleet had been unreliable and would cost substantially more than expected to keep in service until 2037 as planned.

The U.S. Army is testing the Iron Dome on Guam. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday got a first-hand look at the missile-defense system, which arrived months after a top military leader called the island’s defenses inadequate against threats from China. Photo: Adam Falk/The Wall Street Journal

Write to David Winning at david.winning@wsj.com

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