South Korean President Moon Jae In said Monday that his nation is not considering joining countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia in staging a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics next year.
Speaking to reporters alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra, Moon said South Korea had not been asked by any country to participate in the diplomatic boycott led by Washington amid rising criticism over China's alleged human rights abuses in its far-western Xinjiang region.
The comments came as Australia and South Korea elevated their relationship to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" during talks between Morrison and Moon in the Australian capital, signing new deals on defense, clean energy technology and critical minerals.
Among the deals inked was an AU$1 billion ($717 million) defense contract for South Korean defense company Hanwha Corp. to supply the Australian Army with 30 self-propelled howitzer artillery weapons, 15 ammunition resupply vehicles and weapon locating radars to detect enemy artillery.
"Our comprehensive strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea is underpinned by our joint commitment to defense and security cooperation," Morrison said in a statement, using South Korea's official name. "The contract with Hanwha demonstrates the value of industrial collaboration in supporting our countries in addressing mutual security challenges."
The deal is the largest defense contract struck between Australia and an Asian nation and comes at a time of heightened tensions between Australia and China after the recent announcement of the AUKUS security partnership between the United States, Britain and Australia, a move strongly condemned by Beijing.
Moon defended his visit when pressed by a reporter over whether it and the arms deal would send a combative signal to China amid Australia's diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games and ongoing trade tensions with the growing power.
"The state visit I make at this time has nothing to do with our position over China," said Moon through an interpreter, adding that cooperation based on the new bilateral deals is "very important for the national interest of Korea and to promote the peace and prosperity in the region."
The topic of China, however, featured heavily in the press conference, with both South Korea and Australia facing retaliation from Beijing in the form of economic sanctions.
"Our alliance with the U.S., it's the basis of our diplomacy as well as security affairs," Moon said, adding that "in terms of the economic relationship, of course, the relationship with China is important."
But because South Korea has to take into account peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, and to enable the denuclearization of North Korea, Moon said, "We need the constructive efforts of China." South Korea is striving to maintain a "harmonized relationship" with its neighbor, he added.
Moon is the first foreign leader to visit Australia since the coronavirus pandemic began.