Seoul is central to New Delhi’s ‘look east’ policy

by Harsh V. Pant

South Korean President Park Geun-hye was in India on a three-day state visit last month, providing a valuable opportunity for New Delhi and Seoul to impart new dynamism to bilateral relations and underscoring the success of India’s “look east” policy.

Signaling its intent to take India-South Korea ties to new heights, days before the South Korean president’s visit, India’s environment ministry gave its go-ahead to POSCO’s proposed 12 million-tons-per-year steel plant in Odisha, which has been delayed for more than eight years over various clearances and land acquisition. The first phase of the plant is likely to be commissioned in 2018.

By signing nine pacts during the recent visit, including the Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information, concluding negotiations for revision of the existing Double Taxation Avoidance Convention, agreeing to hold annual interactions between the national security structures of the two countries, launching a cyber affairs dialogue, stepping up collaboration in peaceful uses of space science and technology, and agreeing to India’s extending a “tourist visa on arrival facility” to South Korean nationals, New Delhi and Seoul have signaled that they are intent on imparting new momentum to their bilateral relations.

After ignoring each other for years, India and South Korea are now beginning to recognize the importance of tighter ties. The resulting courtship was highlighted by then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit to New Delhi in January 2010, when he was the chief guest at Republic Day celebrations.

During his stay, New Delhi and Seoul decided to elevate their bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership.” Nevertheless, economic ties need rejuvenation even as defense ties need a sense of direction. India’s “look east” policy won’t mean anything if Delhi is not able to further cement ties with South Korea.

As they carefully assess the evolving strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region, New Delhi and Seoul need to advance their political ties so that a mutually beneficial and long-term partnership can evolve. The result could be as important for greater regional stability as it is for Indian and South Korean interests.

The China factor in India-South Korea ties cannot be underestimated. At a time when India’s tensions with China have become more manifest, there are signs that South Korea, too, is re-evaluating its ties with China. In recent years, China could count on South Korea as a friend in the region — a cultural admirer, with residual memories of the close political and cultural ties that existed in Ming times.

For its part, Seoul counted on Beijing to help stabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea has become China’s largest trading partner in the region and has been hospitable to Chinese visits. But strategically Seoul is growing weary of Beijing’s support for North Korea amid the regime’s provocations and its aggressive claims on contested territory.

India is emerging as a serious player in the Asian strategic landscape as smaller states in East Asia reach out to it for trade, diplomacy and, potentially, as a key regional balancer. The “look east” policy, initiated by one of the most visionary of India’s prime ministers, P. V. Narasimha Rao, is now the cornerstone of India’s engagement with the world’s most economically dynamic region.

States in South and Southeast Asia also remain keen on a more pro-active Indian role in the region. At the broader regional level, India continues to make a strong case for its growing relevance in the East Asian regional security and economic architecture with greater urgency.

China is too big and powerful to be ignored by the regional states. But the states in China’s vicinity are now seeking to expand their strategic space by reaching out to other regional and global powers. Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s anticipated retrenchment from the region in the near future.

Larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth. To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India must do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region.

Neither India nor the regional states in East Asia have the incentive to define their relationship in opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and to bring a semblance of equality in their relationships. Great power politics in the region have only just begun.

The rupture in China-ASEAN ties over the last two years has also provided India with a key opening in the region to underline its credentials as a responsible regional stakeholder.

On one hand, China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims has aggravated regional tension; on the other, despite Obama administration’s declared “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific, there are doubts about the ability of Washington to manage regional tensions effectively.

India’s proximity to the region and its growing capabilities make it a natural partner of most states in Southeast Asia. It is not without significance that a vision document was released at summit talks for promoting maritime cooperation and “strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation, and the safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law.” New Delhi has iterated its commitment not only to freedom of navigation and the right of passage but also to access to resources in line with accepted principles of international law and practice.

The rapid rise of China in Asia and beyond is the main pivot even as Delhi seeks to expand economic integration and interdependence within the region. India is developing strong security linkages with the region and trying to actively promote and participate in regional and multilateral initiatives. New Delhi’s ambitious policy in East and Southeast Asia is aimed at significantly increasing its regional profile.

Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s anticipated retrenchment from the region in the near future. Larger states see this as an attractive engine for regional growth.

It remains to be seen if India can indeed live up to its full potential as well as to the region’s expectations.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.