South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the country’s first woman president, is in India on a four-day State visit, providing a valuable opportunity to New Delhi and Seoul to impart new dynamism to their bilateral relations. After ignoring each other for years, India and South Korea are also now beginning to recognise the importance of tighter ties. Despite establishing diplomatic ties in 1973, the two nations hardly figured in each other’s foreign policy calculus.
Former Indian Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, paid a historic visit to South Korea in 1993, encouraging greater economic cooperation and inviting Korean investors to invest in India to help in India’s economic rejuvenation after years of economic stagnation. The resulting courtship was highlighted by then South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s state visit to New Delhi in January 2010, when he was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. During his stay, New Delhi and Seoul decided to elevate their bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership.” The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, reciprocated by visiting South Korea in 2012.
Despite pursuing a “Look East” policy since early 1990s, New Delhi failed to generate momentum in ties with South Korea. South Korean businesses did not begin to view India as an important destination for investments until after the 1997 financial crisis. South Korea still remained focused on China as an economic partner and has only recently made India a major economic and political priority. With a renewed push from both sides, things have improved dramatically on the economic front over the past few years. There is now an annual dialogue on foreign policy and security, allowing the two nations to share their views on regional and global security issues.
The visit of former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam to South Korea in 2006 led to the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that came into force in January 2010. Even as India-Japan trade stands steady at around $11 billion annually, India-South Korea trade grew to more than $15 billion in 2012, with the two sides aiming to double it by 2014. During the Summit Meeting in March 2012, a new bilateral trade target of US$ 40 billion by 2015 was set.
South Korean firms are increasing their brand presence in India, and the Indian Chamber of Commerce has also been established in Korea. South Korea is currently the fifth largest source of investment in India. Linkages with the Indian economy can help Korea grow at far higher rates than it is currently experiencing.
While economic ties between India and South Korea have been diversifying across various sectors, defence cooperation between the two states has also gathered momentum, reflecting the rapid changes in Asian balance of power. In 2005, India and South Korea inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in Defence, Industry and Logistics, which was followed in 2006 by another MoU on cooperation between the two countries’ coast guards. A MoU on exchange of defence- related experience and information, and for promoting cooperation in humanitarian assistance and international peace keeping activities was signed in 2005 along with a MoU to identify futuristic defence technology areas of mutual interest and the undertaking of research and development works in both countries. Co-development and co-production of defence products (marine systems, electronics and intelligent systems) was identified as a priority task with Indian industry through the DRDO. After purchasing eight warships from South Korea in 2012, India’s Ministry of Defence has decided to award a US $1.2 billion contract to South Korea’s Kangnam Corporation for eight mine-countermeasure vessels.
South Korea is one of the world’s leaders in naval ship-building technology, and India would like to tap into South Korean naval capabilities to augment its own. As a result, naval cooperation is rapidly emerging as a central feature of bilateral defence cooperation, with the two navies cooperating in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean region and the Gulf of Aden. Both States also share a strong interest in protecting the sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean region. Maritime security is a key interest of both nations in order to secure vital energy supplies that pass through the Indian Ocean.
Other sectors of convergence include nuclear energy and space. As a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, South Korea supported the waiver granted to India at the 45-nation grouping’s September 2008 meeting. This then led to India signing a civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement with South Korea in 2011. Space cooperation between the two States is also growing. India launched South Korea’s KITSAT-3 satellite in 1999 and has now invited Seoul to join the Indian expedition to the moon — Chandrayaan 2.
The China factor in India-South Korea ties cannot be underestimated. At a time when India’s tensions with China have become more manifest, there are signs that South Korea, too, is re-evaluating its ties with China. Seoul has grown disillusioned with Beijing’s shielding of North Korea from the global outrage over the Cheonan incident. An international investigation convened by South Korea concluded that the sinking of the warship, which killed 46 South Korean sailors in March 2010, was the likely result of a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. Instead of berating Pyongyang, China watered down a UN Security Council presidential statement that, while condemning the incident, failed to hold North Korea responsible. As a result, no punishment has been meted out to North Korea for its brinkmanship. China’s overly cautious response to continuing North Korean nuclear and missile provocations has also not helped.
China’s declaration in November 2013 of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has also raised tensions between Seoul and Beijing as China’s new ADIZ also overlaps with about 3,000 square kilometres of South Korea’s own ADIZ. As if in response, Japan has decided to recognize South Korean sovereignty over islets known as Dokdo, which the Japanese call Takeshima. In return, the South Korea government has promised to suspend all official efforts to change the name of the sea in which Dokdo is located from “Sea of Japan” to “East Sea.” As they carefully assess the evolving strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region, New Delhi and Seoul need to advance their political ties so that a mutually beneficial and long-term partnership can evolve between the two sides. The resulting relationship could be as important for greater regional stability as it will for Indian and South Korean national interests.
The author teaches at King’s College, London