Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 16, 2023
As ROK and India commemorate the 50th anniversary of their ties, both countries need to move beyond the normative approach towards a robust bilateral relationship
South Korea and India: A perplexing partnership Seoul's recent Indo-Pacific strategy, bilateral defence deals, and the recently held Korea-India Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue show the convergence between India and South Korea. However, the increasing trade deficit is a growing concern, resulting in a puzzling relationship. Post the Korean War (1950-53), South Korea primarily relied on the United States (US) for its security, whereas its foreign policy largely remained limited to North Korea and its nuclear threat. However, despite being the world’s tenth-largest economy, South Korea has received criticism for being an observer of global politics and not an active player. There was a need for a stronger diplomatic framework, especially for the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, South Korea launched its first comprehensive regional strategy, the Indo-Pacific strategy. The strategy is being touted as a fervent attempt at making South Korea a sincere middle power by reinforcing its security alliance with the US, diversifying security partnerships, and advocating a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
Despite being the world’s tenth-largest economy, South Korea has received criticism for being an observer of global politics and not an active player.
Meanwhile, in its current status, Seoul has struggled to balance between alliance and autonomy and has never fully explored its foreign policy without US presence. Amidst intensifying US-China rivalry in the region, this strategic document portrays the same balancing act between the US—its security partner—and China—its economic partner—which is not only Seoul’s largest trading partner but also a major stakeholder in North Korean de-nuclearisation. However, the accommodating pattern is limiting South Korea to being a passive participant. Therefore, Seoul needs to take significant steps to gain leverage in the region by strengthening ties with a state like India. The Indo-Pacific strategy has stated India as a special strategic partner, and the recently held fifth Korea-India Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue paint a positive picture. However, slow bilateral trade growth, India's rising trade deficit with Korea, and no aggressive bilateral security ties portray a rather perplexing relationship.

Ties with India

The year 2023 will mark the 50th year of the diplomatic relationship between South Korea and India. Since the introduction of President Moon Jae-in's “New Southern Policy (NSP)” in 2017, there have been considerable developments in the relationship between Seoul and New Delhi. The South Korean government has prioritised its ties with India, recognising its influence in South Asia, as a component of a broader attempt to enhance its strategic, cultural, trade, and diplomatic relationships with neighbouring nations. Both governments have established a solid, multifaceted collaboration that covers a variety of topics, from energy and terrorism to economy and security. India seems a natural partner, which could help South Korea diversify its economic portfolio as India emerges as an active player in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Indo-Pacific strategy has stated India as a special strategic partner, and the recently held fifth Korea-India Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue paint a positive picture.
On bilateral terms, India has widely supported South Korea over the looming North Korean nuclear threat. India condemned North Korea's biggest nuclear test in 2017 and considers the nuclear proliferation in North Korea a threat to its “own national security”. Henceforth, in January 2018, it endorsed the “Vancouver Dialogue”—a multi-nation forum aimed at containing the proliferation of North Korean nuclear weapons. In return, former president Park Geun-Hye has thanked India for being a partner in advocating the denuclearisation of North Korea. Even former president Moon Jae-in called for stronger bilateral relations in various fields and thanked Indian support in the denuclearisation process. Recently, India has expressed its apprehension regarding North Korea's missile tests at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Furthermore, India has emphasised its continued support for efforts to achieve denuclearisation in the Korean peninsula, stating that it is in the best interest of all involved parties. India also stressed that dialogue and diplomacy should be prioritised as the preferred means of resolving the issue. However, unlike South Korea, India has not shied away from challenging Chinese influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, and Seoul seeks to capitalise on it by building a strategic partnership with India. Seoul's recently unveiled Indo-Pacific strategy has included Delhi as an important member of the Indo-Pacific citing India’s immense potential for growth due to its market size, advanced IT, and space technologies. Seoul has also pledged to strengthen the foundation for increased economic cooperation by upgrading the ROK-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Furthermore, at the G20 Minister summit in New Delhi, Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister, Lee Do-Hoon, called India a key partner in the region and vouched to bolster economic and strategic ties with India. Whereas his Indian counterpart, Saurabh Kumar (Secretary of the Minister of External Affairs), hopes to yield a stronger relationship as they are closely working in various fields ranging from the economy to the arms industry.
Unlike South Korea, India has not shied away from challenging Chinese influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, and Seoul seeks to capitalise on it by building a strategic partnership with India.
Notably, in the past few years, India and South Korea have increased their defence and security cooperation. This collaboration is exemplified by the development of the K9 Vajra, a 155mm, 52 Calibre artillery gun, which is the Indian version of the K9 Thunder, produced by the Indian company L&T, with Korea’s Hanwha Defense. In addition, Indian companies have reached out to reliable Korean partners to explore collaborations on utility helicopters, LT tanks, diesel submarines, lithium batteries for Future Ready Combat Vehicles, and submarines. Korean industry is also considering transferring various advanced naval shipbuilding technologies to support upcoming Indian naval projects, such as Mine Countermeasure Vessels (MCMV), Fleet Support Ships (FSS), and Landing Platform Docks (LPD). Furthermore, Indian partners have initiated discussions on several topics, including all variant ammunition, smart ammunition, small arms manufacturing, and batteries and energy management systems. However, on the economic front, India’s trade deficit with South Korea has risen and the recent statement made by the Commerce and Industries Minister Piyush Goyal expressed the Indian government’s growing concern on this matter. Speaking at the Asia Economic Dialogue, Goyal said that the free trade agreement allows South Korean companies to import indiscriminately. He further added that it’s not South Korea or Japan that are directly stopping any export of steel from India to these countries, but because of the nationalist spirit in these countries, Indian companies are not able to secure the required foothold in the country. The companies and people are willing to pay extra and buy their own steel over Indian steel. He, however, said that the government is negotiating with the Korean government about opening up its markets for Indian products. Figure-1: India’s trade with Korea Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROK With all the recent changes, it is evident that both New Delhi and Seoul are actively involved in constructing a new strategic and security framework in the region. The emergence of new power configurations has facilitated a closer relationship between New Delhi and Seoul than ever before. Moreover, both nations have a significant interest in the outcome of the ongoing power struggle between the US and China in the region. Therefore, to mitigate the rivalry and threats spinning out of control, Seoul needs to work together with countries like India. This is also important because a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean peninsula would not be feasible without the right Indo-Pacific strategy and security partners. India, in the meantime, needs to access other sectors of the Korean market to balance out the rising trade deficit. The negotiators from both sides should share the same view of promoting a conducive trade environment on both sides to fully utilise the benefits of the CEPA. Any kind of mistrust or tough negotiations will only harm the growing relationship. Thus, the strategy and partnership should move beyond the normative approach towards a robust and strengthened bilateral relationship as discussed in the recent G20 meeting.
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