The launch of South Korea’s first Indo-Pacific vision document, namely the “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific,” in December 2022 by the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has raised expectations for enhanced momentum in South Korea’s strategic ties with a rising India – arguably, one of the most significant “like-minded” partners in the region. This heralds a significant break from the long-prevalent worldview in Seoul that sidelined most states other than the United States, China, Japan, and Russia, considered key players in Northeast Asian politics.
Looking back, the previous South Korean administrations’ cautious approach to strategic alignments gave deference to Seoul’s largest trade partner, China, and allowed it significant leeway while cozying with South Korea’s security treaty ally, the United States. The China dilemma for Seoul, which exists for other Asian states – namely the strategic hedging required to manage both the United States and China – became starker after the escalating China-U.S. hostilities arising from the Donald Trump administration.
China’s economic and psychological backlash targeting South Korea after the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system forced then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in to reassess strategic priorities. Among other initiatives, Moon introduced his New Southern Policy (NSP; later rebranded the NSP Plus) while pushing for simultaneously a New Northern Policy embracing more of Russia and Central Asia. In both cases, the goal was to shift some of Seoul’s focus away from the major powers into other regions, primarily Southeast Asia and India, in order to diversify South Korea’’s economic and strategic ties.
Considering Moon’s inordinate focus on the Korean Peninsula peace process and the NSP’s emphasis on trade and investment, bypassing strategic concerns, the NSP (Plus) did not deliver the promised South Korean resurgence in the target regions. Moon did inch toward alignment with the U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) vision via the NSP, yet overall the projected ambiguity overshadowed South Korea’s economic as well as middle power potential. This prevented Seoul from realizing its geopolitical ambitions à la Modi’s India.
Such concerns about the NSP’s limitations and the Yoon administration’s pursuit of global diplomacy “taking into consideration South Korea’s stature” have been articulated by the Yoon government’s dynamic Foreign Minister Park Jin. The Indo-Pacific strategy seems to mark the beginning of South Korea’s recent global trajectory toward deepened regional engagement, featuring enhanced cooperation with long-standing partners like India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A Surge in India-South Korea Middle-Power Diplomacy?
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy has a broad geographical scope, covering the Americas, parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia. However, given the centrality of Asia for the vision, two subregions that stand out are South Asia and Southeast Asia. Given India’s burgeoning profile among the Indo-Pacific states, New Delhi will in the coming years become a strategic priority for Seoul. The NSP has already laid the foundation for their security cooperation, besides strengthening the consistently booming bilateral economic ties. The latest strategic document, which lists India as the main actor in Seoul’s South Asian outreach, foreshadows an enhanced strategic partnership based on better communication and upgrading defense, diplomatic, and economic security ties.
Notably, India-South Korea ties are still based on the 2018 Modi-Moon vision for peace and prosperity, along with the joint statement that upgraded their relationship to a “special strategic partnership,” which allowed a synergy between South Korea’s NSP and India’s Act East Policy (AEP). However, their bilateral, not to mention regional, connection needs attentive nurturing. Moreover, geopolitically, a lot has changed in the last few years, including the gradual transformation of the AEP into an Indo-Pacific vision catering to the contemporary global climate and India’s pointed, multi-alignment diplomatic goals and needs.
The new, emerging threats posed by an increasingly militant China, with its growing divergence with the United States, and convergence with Russia; the Ukraine war and its numerous political and social ramifications; the North Korean nuclear resurgence and its ties with China; and the churning evident in the (declining) U.S. global dominance are some of the ongoing challenges that have compelled middle powers like India, Japan, and now South Korea to step up their engagement, with one another most of all.
In this context, 2023 will be a landmark year. Not only will South Korea and India celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties, but the synergy of their FOIP visions will provide momentum for such an event. A flurry of high-level visits for quickly implemented actions should be expected. Moreover, there might be a corresponding initiative to take the NSP-AEP convergence to the next level, a rather evident need. Already the process has started with the ninth round of India-ROK Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) upgrade negotiations that were held in Seoul in November 2022. Things are looking up, with both sides resolute about expediting the process in view of the upcoming diplomatic celebrations.
Second, less than a month after Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy was launched, India and South Korea held their fifth Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue in Seoul. Both sides agreed to deepen cooperation in not only areas like trade and investment, science and technology, and cultural exchanges, which have been the focus areas in the earlier NSP/AEP connect too, but also in security and defense, as well as new and emerging technologies. In view of difficulties faced due to the supply chain overdependence on China during the COVID-19 pandemic, India and South Korea have also agreed to work together on creating resilient and robust global supply chains. As a result, India’s Ministry of External Affairs Official Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi hailed South Korea’s new strategy as the foundation for boosting cooperation including in “new areas.”
Another aspect that makes Yoon’s new Indo-Pacific strategy compatible with India’s is that while they have both embraced the FOIP construct, they continue to be unwilling to take an overtly hardline stance on China and wish to maintain a relationship with the economic power. In Yoon’s new document, China is only mentioned once as a “key partner.”
Despite Seoul’s new strategic clarity and trust in its alliance with the U.S., South Korea therefore will continue somewhat to navigate between the China-U.S. rivalry, and could learn some lessons from India’s strategic balancing. India has been able to carve a place for itself where it continues to forge relations with China and Russia, as well as be a “major defense partner” for the United States because of its centrality to Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Similarly, Seoul looks poised to showcase its indispensable stature, so as to be able to maintain some autonomy for diplomacy with China despite endorsing the FOIP.
Thus, together as strong middle powers (keeping aside the definitional aspects) India and South Korea can use their weight to maintain a stable, rules-based regional order in line with the U.S., but without compromising on their own interests or prospects.
Can Trilateral Ties With ASEAN Be Activated?
The Yoon government is set to strengthen the NSP’s pivot to ASEAN, as evidenced by its continued invocation of ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in its regional endeavors. In May 2022, Foreign Minister Park’s meeting with the Ambassadors of the ASEAN Committee in Seoul was his first official event with the diplomatic corps after taking office. And in November 2022, Yoon outlined his Indo-Pacific strategy at the 23rd ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit. Both events highlight that ASEAN is being projected as the “centerpiece” of Seoul’s new policy.
Through the newly formulated Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI), Yoon intends to expand traditional relations with ASEAN in all areas, including strategic and economic security affairs. Such a strengthening with Southeast Asia via the Indo-Pacific strategy has also been reiterated by the Vietnamese ambassador to South Korea: Welcoming the strategy, he highlighted the “higher level of continuity” in Seoul’s current foreign policy toward ASEAN vis-à-vis Moon administration’s NSP. This will broaden the scope of engagement to include traditional and non-traditional areas of security, including maritime security, cyber challenges, supply chains, and climate action. Besides elevating the partnership at the bloc level, South Korea will also seek to enhance cooperation bilaterally with the ASEAN member states, which are also looking to establish capacity-building partnerships with India especially in the digital economy.
In this context, given the thrust on inclusive cooperation by all three parties, Seoul should simultaneously look to cultivate a trilateral relationship with two linchpins in the Indo-Pacific security architecture, ASEAN and India. For India, too, ASEAN is a long-standing central partner; the AOIP also aligns with Modi’s Indo-Pacific visions such as the AEP as well as its maritime policies of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Critical technologies, sustainable infrastructure, digital learning, maritime security, and “tailored” development are prospective avenues for common growth. There is immense scope for cooperation even in China-centric issues like the disputes in the South China Sea, including freedom of navigation, which has been acknowledged by both Yoon’s Indo-Pacific document and India.
Forging Ties Via Multilateral Cooperation
Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy converges with India’s outlook of the region while sharing a common vision that goes beyond great power politics, and toward a stable multipolar order based on multilateralism. One vital way to enhance the India-South Korea partnership is through the Quad (or likely the Quad Plus working groups), which has been of special interest to the Yoon administration.
As a Quad partner, India is a valuable path of entry into the grouping, and Yoon has already asked the Indian government to support South Korea’s inclusion into the Quad’s working groups. Park, too, has highlighted COVID-19, climate change, and emerging technologies as areas of cooperation via the extended Quad formats.
India’s presidency of the G-20 will also facilitate greater coordination between the two sides, particularly to propel the Global South’s concerns. On economic security, India-South Korea cooperation could get impetus via the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, especially in supply chains and clean energy, as India has for now opted out of the trade pillar.
On maritime issues, South Korea’s position as dialogue partner in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) will bolster “future-oriented” cooperation within the wider region. The new strategy clearly embraces the importance of the Indian Ocean region, which is India’s traditional stronghold and where New Delhi is looking to strengthen its influence vis-à-vis the Chinese footprint.
Overall, considering their complementary interests in addressing the challenges posed by China while not forsaking or thwarting engagement opportunities, leveraging greater strategic autonomy, and achieving a global profile, it is important for South Korea to formulate a comprehensive new India policy at the earliest. The signs are promising, but whether such lofty-sounding rhetoric is likely to become a reality will be clear in time.