India-South Korea: Strategic Partners: RSTV – The Big Picture

Rajya Sabha TV programs like ‘The Big Picture’, ‘In Depth’ and ‘India’s World’ are informative programs that are important for UPSC preparation. In this article, you can read about the discussions held in the ‘Big Picture’ episode on ‘India-South Korea: Strategic Partners’ for the IAS exam.

Anchor: Vishal Dahiya

Guests: Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, Sandip Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times

Why in the news?

  • India-South Korea relations are once again in focus keeping in mind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to South Korea.
  • During this visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a summit meeting with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in which is the second such meeting between both the leaders.
  • It is important to note that relations between both nations have made great strides in the recent past and have now become multidimensional owing to mutual good will, high level exchanges and convergence of interests.
  • India is among 10 trade partners of South Korea and the 6th largest destination for Korean goods.
  • Further, Korean investments in India have reached a cumulative figure of almost 6 billion dollars.
  • Also, while India has its Act East Policy, South Korea has its ‘New Southern Policy’ which focusses on strengthening its economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia and India.
  • So, how would both these nations plan to take this relationship forward to the next level?
  • This would be the object of discussion in this edition of The Big Picture.

India – South Korea relations

Larger Background:

Brief Note on South Korea’s New Southern Policy:

  • The Korean government’s New Southern Policy aims to cultivate its relations with ASEAN and India as key partners in the southern region, raise this partnership to the level of Korea’s traditional four major diplomatic partners (the U.S., China, Japan, Russia), develop values that can be empathized with others, and build a mutually prosperous “people-centered” community.
  • The New Southern Policy aims to form a multilateral economic and diplomatic framework to adjust to the U.S.’s priority on domestic concerns, which has been in full swing since the inauguration of the Trump administration, and to the expansion of China’s influence across East Asia. Korea’s trade has been heavily dependent on the United States and China.
  • Over the last three years (2015‒2017), the United States and China accounted for 38.1% of Korea’s total exports.
  • In terms of total value of exports and imports also, China and the U.S. accounted for 35 percent. This concentration on a certain few countries in its trade structure has made Korea susceptible to changes in their foreign policy strategies and constrained the range of changes in its foreign economic policies.
  • South Korea experienced difficulties in its relations with China in 2016 due to the THAAD issue, and has also experienced difficulties in exporting to the U.S. due to the strong nationalistic trends it has shown since the inauguration of the Trump administration.
  • Some experts opine that if Korea is to establish a foreign economic policy that maximizes its profits with confidence, it should first diversify its trade structure centered on a few certain countries and reduce its external risks.

Specific Aims of the New Southern Policy:

  • An important point to note regarding South Korea’s “The New Southern Policy” is that this policy does not merely aim to replace the U.S. and China with new southern regions, but aims at expanding its scope of cooperation while maintaining relations with the U.S. and China.
  • Therefore, the vision of the New Southern Policy can be summarized as a strategic foreign policy that pursues South Korea’s practical interests along with its traditional four major diplomatic partners (the U.S., China, Japan, Russia) and new southern regions, based on a more balanced form of diplomacy.
  • The New Southern Policy emphasizes the so-called “3P community,” which stands for a community of People, Prosperity and Peace.
  • The New Southern Policy aims toward a community of peace.
  • It is important to note that although there are uncertainties in Northeast Asia due to the nuclear development of North Korea, President Moon Jae-in has confirmed his support for the New Southern Policy and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula during his visits to ASEAN and India.

Analysis by the Experts:

This is not going to be the first such meeting between both the leaders, as a matter of fact, both the leaders have held one summit meeting earlier as well. Thus, what would the focus areas be between Prime Minister Modi and President Moon Jae-in?

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, weighed in with his points here.

  • We already have a very strong trade and investment relationship between India and South Korea. However, since President Moon Jae-in’s visit last year (2018), the Korean’s have signalled to India that they would like a much stronger strategic relationship. This is something that we haven’t really looked at in the past. Further, among those elements, is a ‘New Southern Policy’, where Korea wishes to diversify away from its traditional security relationship with the United States and Japan. It also wants to see what it can do and cooperate with India in areas like the Indian ocean region. As a matter of fact, India had her first Indo-Korean naval exercises last year (2018). One of the points that the Koreans have been making to India is that they see India as a country that is now strategically important to them. This is partly due to investment and trade and partly because the Koreans are now prepared to consider the possibility of stronger military cooperation. As a matter of fact, India is now considering buying some weaponry from Korea. The next aspect is that they want to see if they can fit into the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ which has been put forward by India, U.S. and Japan.  South Korea would like to see if they can fit into this. They are a little wary at the moment as they are nervous about China’s response. South Korea has mentioned that its overseas development agencies can begin to cooperate with India as we (India) do so currently with the Japanese.

There is a China angle between India and South Korea as well. China and the United States are the two biggest trading partners as far as South Korea is concerned. It has also been said that South Korea is now looking beyond China as well. Your thoughts?    

Sandip Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, weighed in here with his arguments.

China is indeed very important for both the countries. This is because we share a very close proximity with China. Also, both India and South Korea are concerned about China’s rise, especially when China becomes assertive. India is a part of the Quad group of countries, and Prime Minister Modi has used the word ‘inclusive’ often when it comes to describing the ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy. South Korea has a very nuanced approach to China. They don’t want to confront China directly. Also, with respect to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, President Moon Jae-in said that they don’t have any position. It is believed that they are looking for a third way. There are two big narratives around the Indo-Pacific Strategy that are going on right now:

  1. An assertive China
  2. An Indo-Pacific Strategy to counter China
  3. But, there is a third way that is being articulated by India and South Korea which is through the ‘Act East Policy’ and the ‘New Southern Policy’ respectively. India and South Korea would like to have this third way more positively explored.

This understanding and relationship is quite important not only from India’s perspective but also important from the region’s perspective as a whole. Your thoughts?  

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments.

By their nature, the South Koreans are guarded in their approach. They would not come out in the front and confront any nation. Even with Japan, they have been very careful. South Korea also finds in India a very acceptable partner. India doesn’t have edges which can create problems for them. They are aware of one factor which they have grown up with, which is the Pakistan factor. But, apart from this, India doesn’t go out in any manner and exude problems to them. It is this problem free relationship that serves as a great bond for the Indo-Pacific. As a matter of fact, South Korea and India are on a highway, there is nothing that stops them. It is natural to predict that there would be regular summits going forward between India and South Korea, just like how we have with Russia and other countries. This kind of bond between the two countries strengthens bilateral cooperation.

It looks like both economy and diplomacy are going hand-in-hand here. Economically, India is very important to South Korea and vice versa. Your thoughts?   


Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, weighed in with his points here.

One of the things which South Korea brings to the table which India is looking for is that we both are increasingly worried about Chinese electronic presence in India. Currently, we are looking at whether we would allow Chinese 5G technology into the country; we are also worried about the number of Chinese smartphones and the dominance of Chinese Software Apps and so on. There are very few countries however that build phones on the scale that the Chinese do, and one of them is South Korea. So one of the things that we have been investigating, which is also an area in which bilateral discussions have been continuing, is whether or not we can encourage the manufacture of smartphones in India, using Samsung or other Korean companies, with the implicit understanding that this would be used to displace or reduce the Chinese footprint in India.

We saw that Modi personally inaugurated the Samsung factory in Noida, which will be one of the largest electronic manufacturing plants in the country. There are some other plans as well, for example in the area of smart cities, where again the idea is that a lot of the hardware would be Korean, with the implicit understanding that the larger design would be to keep the Chinese out of what we (India) would consider to be critical infrastructure.

From an economic perspective, we have infrastructure funds, and Prime Minister Modi has invited Korean investors to come into India and do business. Your thoughts?

Sandip Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU weighed in with his arguments here.

  • The economic imperatives are very strong between India and South Korea. Both India and South Korea have not been able to realize their potential till now. Both the leaders are aware about that and they have been trying to take away all the obstacles that have come in the way of the two countries.
  • There are some basic problems which the leaders of India and South Korea would have to tackle. This is also related to the trust between the businesses of India and the businesses of South Korea. Unfortunately, the trust level between the business community of the two countries isn’t at the level where it should be. Many Korean manufacturing companies who have a base in India don’t take many Indian partners. India has also been complaining about a 50 billion USD trade deficit. These are some of the issues which need to be addressed.   

Coming back to the diplomacy aspect, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Strategy is an area where both India and South Korea have differing viewpoints, and both countries would like their viewpoints to have center stage. Your thoughts?

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments.

  • The Indian Prime Minister’s Shangri-La speech sets the tone for that kind of a relationship.
  • Also, South Korea’s involvement in multilateral forums, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and their diplomacy with North Korea at the moment is showing that they are keen to develop into a peacemaker. President Moon Jae-in is very much ahead of the curve in that respect. Further, he has been pushing the U.S. to really move forward with North Korea.
  • From an Indian perspective, it is important to note that India has been deficient in the production of core technologies. We have been good in services, however, we have been lacking in core technologies. However, if we were to cooperate with South Korea, and if we move in a particular direction, there is definitely space for both to work. Further, when people talk about protectionism in trade, South Korea and India share the same free trade concepts. They are not strong advocates for protection. They have their own developmental plan that has largely revolved around globalization. India and South Korea find a lot of complementarities; there is a large scope for synthesis between India and South Korea.

Diplomacy between the two countries seems to be riding high on trade and mutual interests in economic aspects specifically infrastructure, technology. These spheres seem to be gelling well for both nations. Your thoughts?

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, weighed in with his points here.

India effectively runs three Indo-Pacific strategies.

  1. The first one is an Indo-Japanese axis, which is designed completely to counter China

There is no other basis for its existence, and it is driven by a deep bilateral concern about the rise of China.  

  1. We then run a trilateral one which is ensconced in the Malabar exercises. This involves India, U.S. and Japan. This is almost 100% military.
  2. Then we have the Quad, which is the weakest of these three elements and this includes Australia as well. We (India) have been wary of this because China has tended to see this as a proto alliance which India itself is not at present prepared to consider. This is largely because it is not certain whether the other members of the Quad are actually on board with this idea.

South Korea is nervous about China, but it has a long and difficult historical relationship with Japan.  

However, the one country that South Korea remains close to is the United States of America. However, an interesting argument that the Korean’s have made in private at the highest levels has been their concern about Donald Trump’s willingness to deal with the North Koreans and consider, even theoretically, the possibility of America withdrawing militarily from the Korean peninsula.

It is interesting that the number one demand made privately from the South Koreans is to prevail on America on not leaving the Korean peninsula.  This is because such a development would be a disastrous result as far as the balance of power in the region is concerned.

Koreans by nature play very safe and they have had historically good relations with the United States. Also, they would like to have India play an important role in the region. Your thoughts?

Sandip Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU weighed in with his arguments here.

South Korea is quite aware of the fact that given the unpredictability of Donald Trump, he may come out with any kind of policy option and one of them can even be withdrawing from the Korean Peninsula. However, at the same time, the South Koreans are not really worried about that as it is a remote possibility. It may happen, but it is highly remote. However, overall, South Korea has realized that they can’t keep their foreign policy hostage to just their relations with the great powers.

Earlier, South Korean foreign policy was largely focussed on their policy towards the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.  However, after the coming of President Moon Jae-in, and the ‘New Southern Policy’, South Korea has been trying to diversify their foreign relations. Thus, in case there is some problem in their alliance system and recalibrations and equations in East Asia, in that situation, this diversification will help them. India-South Korea relations can be an important pillar of their diversification plans.

Concluding Remarks:

  • It would be a good step if India and South Korea regularize their summit meetings and that they meet more frequently at the highest level. This will give directions to the business and industry in each country to work together. Thus, the problem that was mentioned about South Korean businesses and Indian businesses dealing on a day-to-day basis can be overcome. It is believed that a top-down direction would benefit both business communities.  
  • The second aspect is that India would need to work with South Korea on new generation technologies and core technologies, while at the same time consolidating the existing relationship.
  • This is the one country with which India’s relationship over the last 30 years has mushroomed. India had very little happening on the bilateral front with South Korea before it liberalized its economy.
  • Suddenly, South Koreans like Singapore, saw India and its potential. Thus, they started investing in India and they started working with India. They see India the same way even today.
  • Further, if one looks at what India has done in East Asia by virtue of the Act East Policy, Japan has now emerged by far as our most important bilateral relationship in Asia as a whole. In fact, India’s relationship with Japan is arguably one of its most important in the world. At the heart of this relationship is the Japanese willingness to put money, technology and finance into India on a non-commercial basis. They are prepared to do this even without making a profit out of it, to make India a great power. Further, to some degree now, we have a similar small kind of a relationship with Singapore and we may get something similar with Indonesia. It is also important to note that South Korea is the most technologically advanced nation in Asia after Japan. Therefore, bringing them on board would be an absolute boost to India’s ability to become a more powerful nation. Powers like South Korea can be as important as India’s relations with Japan. Also, from an Indian perspective, it appears as though India is keeping its options open.

Read more Gist of Rajya Sabha TV to help you ace current affairs in the IAS exam.

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