Though most of the attention is focused on prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China this week, he will also be going to Mongolia and South Korea. These visits are important in their own right and should not be sidelined in the din about the China visit. That Modi is making a point to visit Mongolia and South Korea after China is in itself significant as it is a signal that much as China is increasing its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, India too can expand its profile in China’s periphery.
After having long ignored each other, India and South Korea have only recently begun to recognise the importance of tighter ties. 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”.
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.
The visit of former Indian president A P J 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 crossed the $11 billion mark in 2011, the two sides have set a target of $40 billion in 2015 which is unlikely to be met. South Korean firms are increasing their brand presence in India, and the Indian Chamber of Commerce has also been established in Korea. Major Korean conglomerates including Samsung, Hyundai Motors and LG have made significant investments in India, estimated at over $3 billion, while Indian investments in South Korea too have exceeded the $2 billion mark.
Linkages with the Indian economy can help Korea grow at far higher rates than it is currently experiencing. Among other opportunities, Korean firms are looking to participate in India’s plans to develop its infrastructure sector. In the IT sector, too, South Korea’s competitive advantage in hardware complements India’s software profile. India’s dynamic fast-growing economy makes for a natural economic partner for South Korea, often referred to as the most innovative country in the world, with the focus of cooperation likely to be in high-priority areas like IT, civilian space, knowledge-based industries, high technology, energy, automobiles and defence. Prime minister Modi is likely to seek financial assistance for his pet projects of smart cities, Digital India and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan from South Korea.
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 the Asia-Pacific region’s balance of power caused by China’s rise. 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. 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.
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. In 2011, India signed a civil nuclear cooperation deal with South Korea, allowing a framework for Korean companies to participate in atomic power plant projects in the country. Space cooperation between the two states is also growing. India launched South Korea’s KITSAT-3 satellite in 1999 and invited Seoul to join the Indian expedition to the moon—Chandrayaan-2.
The China factor in India-South Korea ties cannot be underestimated. India’s tensions with China have increased in the past few years, with Beijing aggressively asserting its territorial claims on their shared frontier. At the same time, South Korea, too, is re-evaluating its ties with China. In recent years, China could count on South Korea as a friend in the region—a cultural admirer, with residual memories of the close political and cultural ties that existed in Ming times. For its part, Seoul counted on Beijing to help stabilise the situation on the Korean peninsula. South Korea has become China’s largest trading partner in the region and has been eagerly hospitable to Chinese visits.
Today, however, Seoul has grown disillusioned with Beijing shielding North Korea from the global outrage over the Cheonan incident in 2009. An international investigation convened by South Korea concluded that the sinking of the warship, which killed 46 South Korean sailors in March, was likely the 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.
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 is for Indian and South Korean national interests.