Last month, senior diplomats from India and South Korea met in New Delhi for a second Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue. A statement from the Indian External Affairs office indicated that “…the two sides decided to encourage enhanced engagement in civil nuclear energy cooperation as well as space activities, including the launch of Korean satellites by India.” The exchange follows a year of progress on forging ahead on an ROK-Indian strategic relationship.
Last summer, for instance, then-Indian President Pratibha Patil visited South Korea where the two sides signed agreements on a variety of issues including trade and defense cooperation. The centerpiece of the visit, however, particularly from Delhi’s perspective, was the nuclear pact the two sides signed permitting South Korea to export its nuclear technology and expertise to India. With this agreement, South Korea became the ninth country to enter into a nuclear partnership with New Delhi.
Previously, there were several obstacles to nuclear cooperation with India as a result of its nuclear weapons program and its sustained refusal to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, as a result of intense U.S.-led lobbying, India was granted a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in the fall of 2008. This effectively removed most hurdles for countries that wished to establish civil nuclear trade deals with the emerging Indian economy.
Both India and South Korea stand to gain from bolstering their nuclear relationship. For India, this relationship is important as its economy and industrial base continue to growth rapidly and energy demands are pushed to a maximum. India is hoping that a significant expansion of its nuclear energy sector will provide the necessary electricity for continued industrial growth. The agreement with South Korea also helps further India’s efforts to normalize its relations with the international non-proliferation regime as part of its ultimate goal of being allowed to join the NPT regime as a nuclear weapons state, instead of remaining outside the NPT as a nuclear pariah.
While civil nuclear cooperation continues to boost India’s energy policies, it is arguably of greater importance to Korea, which has become a significant participant in an elite club of civil nuclear energy traders. In 2009, for instance, Seoul won a hard-fought battle over the rights to build four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. The contract is said to be worth nearly $40 billion. Last year, Korea also signed a $130 million agreement with Jordan to build that country’s first research reactor. And Seoul is not stopping there as it continues to explore potential partnerships with other markets hungry for nuclear energy including China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey.
Although the budding nuclear ties between New Delhi and Seoul are rooted in economics, there are spillover effects that will serve to strengthen strategic relations between the two and also further common goals on Asia’s future. Seoul and New Delhi are two of the largest and most prosperous democracies in Asia. Despite their differences, both countries have a strategic vision of the continent that promotes democracy and fewer regulations on foreign investment.
Geopolitically, the two states have aligned priorities aimed at building upon a strategic hedge – supported by other regional players such as the United States, Japan, and Vietnam — against the emergence of China and the possibility of a Sino-centric continent. The partnership also makes sense for Seoul considering that it allows the administration of President Lee Myung-Bak to step back from entering into a more fulsome alliance with Japan, which remains politically sensitive – as demonstrated recently with the recent controversy over the North Korea intelligence sharing pact.
China has reason to worry about a growing Korea-India partnership, but continues to make the shrewd calculation that this is a pact built upon economics and – at least currently – lacks strategic depth. Geography alone gives China a big advantage and India does not currently have the naval resources to sufficiently bridge that gap. While the US will support increased Indo-Korean ties, not even Washington can change the geographic realities of the Sino-ROK-Indo triangle.
J. Berkshire Miller is a public sector analyst on the Asia-Pacific region and has extensive research and policy experience in issues relating to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is a regular contributor to The Diplomat's Flashpoints Blog.