Features | Diplomacy | South Asia

South Korea Calling India

Can India seize the opportunities offered by its growing engagement with South Korea and Japan?

South Korea Calling India
Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The state visit to India this week by South Korean President Park Geun-hye represents a significant opportunity to stretch New Delhi’s two-decade-long “Look East” policy and cement strategic and economic relations with a major emerging power.

Traditionally, India has concentrated more on Southeast Asian countries as the lynchpins of its quest to spread political influence and profit from the region’s economic dynamism. New Delhi’s relative neglect of the geographically more distant Northeast Asia, of which South Korea is a pivotal country, is gradually being redressed with a spectacular warming of ties between India and Japan.

If Japan is entrenching itself as a close strategic partner of India, can its main neighbor South Korea stay far behind? To host Park as a state guest just before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for the Republic Day celebrations in India later this month is a propitious lineup of Northeast Asian powers who matter to India’s national security and economic growth. It is also a sign that India is thinking bigger, eyeing a horizon further from its own immediate neighborhood, and seeking a broader footprint than just being a subcontinental power nestled in South Asia.

South Korea boasts a technologically advanced and cost-effective military industrial complex that could help India diversify its list of defense suppliers and R&D partners. South Korean missile and naval combat systems are internationally accepted as state-of-the-art and are on offer for India to acquire.

Before departing for India, Park mentioned that she would be treating her visit as the beginning of her “sales diplomacy toward the world’s new growing economies.” As a conservative politician whose father was a former military dictator of South Korea, she has the full backing of her defense establishment to woo India as a buyer.

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But as in the case of other partners in the defense sector, India would like to transcend the dependence of a buyer-seller equation and move towards joint development of weaponry. Recently, India’s defense companies chose the South Korean capital Seoul to display their indigenously manufactured weapons for sale at an Aerospace and Defence Exhibition (ADEX-2013).

Defense sector cooperation leading to co-production of hi-tech weaponry and joint exercises of the two navies is gathering momentum. The joint references to “safety of the sea lanes” that India makes with South Korea have a signaling intent towards China, which has been riling its neighbors with assertive naval maneuvers in both Northeast and Southeast Asia.

Despite being a treaty ally of the United States and a target of Chinese ally North Korea’s destabilizing behavior, South Korea has a complex relationship with China, reflect a cultural affinity and a shared history of Japanese imperialism. When Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December, South Korea condemned it as vehemently as China did.

Beijing’s trade and investment with Seoul have also expanded enormously. South Korea’s economic vitality and rise has been aided by closer regional integration with China. The common front that the U.S. desires among all its allies in East Asia – South Korea, Japan and Taiwan – to pressure China often fails to materialize because of these new economic realities.

Still, it is a fact that China is wary of India’s growing strategic dealings with South Korea and Japan. China would naturally prefer Asia’s other powers to remain divided. For instance, China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency was no doubt pleased to report in the aftermath of Abe’s December Yasukuni visit that Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid had urged Japan “to humbly accept the criticism of the shrine visit by China and South Korea.”

India’s Defence Minister, A.K. Antony has described South Korea as an essential component of India’s vision of the “emerging East Asian architecture.” Park’s visit to New Delhi offers a fillip to this concept and the implicit meanings it contains. Unlike Japan, South Korea is not inclined towards overtly countering Chinese power in the Asia Pacific. Seoul’s more ambiguous approach towards Beijing may fit New Delhi’s own misgivings about being drawn into an American-constructed phalanx to keep China in check.

Regional troublemaker North Korea, a cantankerous ward of China and a mortal threat to South Korea, has also ruffled Indian feathers through illicit nuclear and missile commerce with Pakistan. As a trust enhancer, New Delhi should propose naval interdiction arrangements with Seoul to monitor and halt suspicious North Korean ships. In 2009, India detained a North Korean vessel, the M V San, in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and frisked it for radioactive cargo.

With the Indian Navy now bolstering its capabilities and taking part in simulated exercises with its South Korean counterparts, it is conceivable that the two countries could work to a plan to tackle North Korean smuggling across an arc stretching from the Arabian Sea all the way to the Yellow Sea. This kind of concrete contribution to South Korean national security could cement the bilateral relationship.

India’s ambassador to South Korea, Vishnu Prakash, has highlighted the potential for cooperation in space technology between New Delhi and Seoul. South Korea’s ambitions of becoming a spacefaring power match India’s advanced capabilities in satellite launching. Only in the rarest of scientific fields can India claim to be somewhat ahead of a technological innovator like South Korea. Space is one such area where the two nations can develop a win-win partnership and India could earn valuable foreign exchange.

Trade between India and South Korea has surged under the overarching framework of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Seoul chose to sign this free trade agreement with India in 2009, its first with a BRICS country, given the complementarity of the two countries’ goods and services.

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Seoul is keen to build civilian nuclear plants in India to power the latter’s electricity generation projects. Apart from defense, this is another big-ticket area where many countries view India as a market. But stringent liability laws have kept foreign corporations away, and South Korea may find entry into this field is neither quick nor easy.

Attracting more South Korean investment in India’s manufacturing and infrastructure sectors remains a keystone of the relationship. However, the interminable struggle over South Korean steel company POSCO’s mammoth $12.1 billion investment in the eastern Indian state of Odisha has been a dampener. POSCO has already been frustrated enough to withdraw a $5.3 billion steel sector investment from the southern Indian state of Karnataka in 2013, following delays in securing raw materials and local opposition to land acquisition.

Like Japanese firms, South Korean companies are wary of the political minefield that awaits foreign direct investment in India. The decision of the Indian environment minister Veerappa Moily, to finally green-light POSCO’s Odisha venture on the eve of Park’s visit is a confidence booster that could bring in more South Korean capital to meet India’s vast financing needs.

Booming ties with South Korea will strengthen India’s ability to be a potent player in East Asia, which remains the place to be for all great powers of the 21st century. As a highly contested space where regional and extra-regional powers are converging with the ambition of shaping and controlling economic and military trends, East Asia has both space and appetite for India. It is up to New Delhi to creatively fashion substantive relations with nations like South Korea and make its East Asian presence felt.

Sreeram Chaulia is a Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.