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AUKUS comes as pressure on Seoul to join anti-China campaign

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President Moon Jae-in bumps elbows with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson during their summit in New York, Monday (local time). Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in bumps elbows with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson during their summit in New York, Monday (local time). Yonhap

Trilateral security pact is seen as US's latest attempt to contain China's assertion

By Nam Hyun-woo

AUKUS, a new trilateral security partnership between the U.K., Australia and the U.S., is placing indirect pressure on South Korea to join Washington's campaign to contain an assertive China, and throwing a new challenge for the Moon Jae-in administration's balancing act between the two superpowers.

AUKUS became the subject of South Korea's diplomacy during a summit between President Moon and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in New York, Monday (local time). According to presidential spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee, Johnson told Moon that "AUKUS will not cause any regional problems," and Moon responded, "I hope AUKUS will contribute to regional peace and prosperity."

The remarks were interpreted as Moon's effort to take a neutral stance on the trilateral pact, which is widely viewed as an anti-China grouping.

AUKUS was announced Sept. 15, as a military deal that will see the U.S. and U.K. help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines. None of the leaders of the involved parties mentioned a specific country while announcing the pact, but it is believed to be a measure to counter China's rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, meets with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Tuesday (local time). AP-Yonhap
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, meets with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Tuesday (local time). AP-Yonhap

AUKUS is the latest among various U.S.-led campaigns to contain China's assertiveness, following the QUAD security dialogue among the U.S., India, Japan and Australia; and the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance comprised of the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Among those countries, South Korea has been increasing its diplomatic contacts with the U.K. and Australia in recent months.

Moon's summit with Johnson came just 100 days after the two leaders met during the Group of Seven (G7) Summit in the U.K. During the two summits, the leaders held discussions on the U.K.'s participation in South Korea's project to develop a light aircraft carrier.

Moon also held a summit with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the sidelines of the G7 Summit, and met Australian foreign and defense ministers in Seoul, Sept. 13, to talk about military and security cooperation.

Against this backdrop, the creation of AUKUS is interpreted as the U.S. concentrating its diplomatic influence on having its allies exert efforts to contain China; and South Korea is being pressured to join this campaign.

During a Sept. 20 press briefing on AUKUS, a senior U.S. administration official was asked whether Washington had the intention of transferring nuclear submarine technology to South Korea as it had decided to do for Australia. The official responded, "We don't have the intention of extending this to other countries."

The South Korean military also wants to develop nuclear-powered submarines. During his presidential campaign in 2017, Moon said Korea also needs nuclear submarines, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hyun-jong reportedly visited the U.S. last October to ask for Washington's cooperation in supplying nuclear fuel; which was refused.

According to observers, this shows that the U.S. is providing a favor to Australia, which has been expressing its clear stance against China, despite Beijing's trade retaliation on wine, sugar and seafood exports.

"It is seen as a significant incentive for Australia, which has long been standing as faithful partner for the U.S. in terms of countering China," said Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

"South Korea was also given similar opportunities to join the anti-China campaign, but the Moon administration made its choice to stand neutral, which could cause mid- to long-term pressure on Seoul's diplomacy," Shin said.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong speaks with Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, during an interview organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wednesday (local time). Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong speaks with Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, during an interview organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wednesday (local time). Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs

While Moon is trying to take a neutral stance, Foreign Affairs Minister Chung Eui-yong made comments leaning largely toward China.

During an interview with the U.S.-based think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, Wednesday (local time), Chung, who is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, said China's assertive diplomacy was natural because the country was becoming strong economically.

He added he does not agree with the term "assertive," noting that China wanted to deliver its voice to the international community and the world should listen to it.

Regarding the idea of grouping Korea, Japan and Australia as a bulwark against China, Chung said that was "the mentality of the Cold War."


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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