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Rise of China prods India-South Korea ties

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony was visiting South Korea last week at the invitation of his South Korean counterpart to boost defense cooperation between the two states. His visit comes two months after the Indian external affairs minister visited Seoul.

After ignoring each other for a long time, India and South Korea are now beginning to recognize the importance of courting each other.

During the state visit of the South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to New Delhi in January — when he was the chief guest at Republic Day celebrations — New Delhi and Seoul decided to elevate their bilateral relationship to the “strategic partnership” level.

Despite India’s pursuit of a Look-East policy since the early 1990s, ties with South Korea have failed to achieve the momentum they deserve. It was only after the 1997 financial crisis that South Korean businesses started viewing India as an important destination for investments.

South Korea remained focused on China as an economic partner and has only recently started viewing India as a major economic and political priority. With a renewed push from both sides, things are improving dramatically on the economic front.

The visit of former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to South Korea in 2006 led to the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which went into force last January. Even as India-Japan trade stands at around $11 billion, India-South Korea trade grew to more than $15 billion last year with the two sides aiming to double it by 2014.

The brand presence of South Korean firms is increasing in India and the Indian Chamber of Commerce has also been established in Korea. Linkages with the Indian economy can help Korea grow at far higher rates than at present. Korean firms are looking to invest in India as India goes about developing its infrastructure sector.

In the information technology sector, South Korea’s competitive advantage in hardware complements India’s software profile. A dynamic fast-growing economy like India needs the heft of South Korea, often referred to as the most innovative country in the world, as a major economic partner. The focus of India-South Korean economic cooperation will be in high-priority areas like IT, civilian space activities, knowledge-based industries, high technology, energy, automobiles and defense.

While economic ties between India and South Korea have been diversifying across various sectors, defense cooperation between the two states has also gathered momentum as the balance of power in Asia-Pacific undergoes rapid changes with the rise of China.

In 2005, India and South Korea inked a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Defense, Industry and Logistics, followed in 2006 by another MoU on cooperation between the coast guards of the two states. South Korea is a world leader in naval ship-building technology, and India would like to tap into South Korean naval capabilities to augment its own.

Naval cooperation is rapidly emerging as a central feature of India-South Korean defense cooperation with the two navies cooperating in antipiracy operations in the Indian Ocean region and the Gulf of Aden. Both states have a strong interest in protecting the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean region. India is also looking forward to concluding a civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with South Korea.

As a member of Nuclear Suppliers Group, South Korea had supported a waiver for India at the meeting of the 45-nation body in September 2008. Space cooperation between the two states is also growing. India launched South Korea’s KITSAT-3 satellite in 1999 and has invited Seoul to join the Indian expedition to the moon.

As India’s tensions with China have increased in the past few years as Beijing aggressively asserts its territorial claims vis-a-vis India, South Korea, too, is re-evaluating its ties with China. In recent years, China has had no better friend than South Korea in the region. A cultural admirer and as China’s largest trading partner in the region, South Korea had hoped that Beijing would help stabilize the situation on the peninsula.

Seoul, however, stands disillusioned with Beijing’s shielding of North Korea from the global outrage over the Cheonan incident in March — when North torpedoed a 88-meter-long South Korean corvette, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Rather than berating Pyongyang, China watered down the presidential statement from the U.N. Security Council, condemning the attack, per se, but without identifying North Korea as the culprit. As a result, no punishment has been meted out to North Korea for its brinkmanship.

New Delhi and Seoul need to carefully assess the evolving strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region and give a push to their political ties so that a mutual beneficial partnership can evolve between the two sides.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.