Time to build a stronger bridge between New Delhi & Seoul

India’s diplomatic and strategic influence is rising in East Asia and in the Pacific region beyond Japan and Australia. Call it a new diplomatic order compelled out of the coronavirus pandemic and the new shifting alignments due to many nations reconsidering their ties with China, India seems to have generated a strategic influence and interest […]

India’s diplomatic and strategic influence is rising in East Asia and in the Pacific region beyond Japan and Australia. Call it a new diplomatic order compelled out of the coronavirus pandemic and the new shifting alignments due to many nations reconsidering their ties with China, India seems to have generated a strategic influence and interest in South Korea’s foreign policy.

If a latest research series published by the South Korea international affairs experts at the East West Center, considered to be a Mecca for AsiaPacific diplomacy and strategic affairs expertise, is to be believed, then Seoul is all out to bridge the gaps of diplomacy, strategic affairs, trade and cultural ties with New Delhi to strengthen and reorient what the authors call, “Korea’s New Southern Policy”.

Seonjou Kang, Professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy, and Yoon Ah Oh, Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Seoul National University, have authored two of the special series’ reports for EWC in Washington DC, which particularly put the thrust on South Korea’s growing urgency to strengthen ties with the ASEAN, and India, in particular.

 Yoon Ah Oh’s report particularly talks at length about the prospective strengthening of relations by Seoul and New Delhi under the South Korean President Moon Jaein’s New Southern Policy (NSP), which is considered to be “the country’s first diplomatic initiative focused on Southeast Asia and India”.

Previously, Korea’s Asia initiatives were either Northeast Asia-focused or encompassed all of Asia. “The NSP aims to elevate Korea’s ties with Southeast Asia and India to the level of its ties with the US, China, Russia, and Japan — the four countries that have traditionally been most important to Korea,” says Ah Oh in his report.

Despite high levels of economic ties and people-topeople exchanges, Korea’s relations with Southeast Asia and India receive disproportionately less recognition, both within Korea’s foreign policy hierarchy and in the public’s view. The NSP seeks to change that by coming up with a presentable foreign policy brand, says the report. The EWC report also explains the reason behind this shift in Seoul’s diplomatic priorities. “In recent years, Korea has found itself facing more foreign policy challenges than ever before. These challenges include North Korea’s nuclear provocations, US-China geopolitical competition in Asia, and rising protectionism and uncertainty in the world economy,” says Seonjou Kang.

 Complementing the interest from South Korea, India’s own clear vision for Asia-Pacific is a key factor too.

Satu P. Limaye, Director of East-West Center in Washington, says in his latest research paper on India-East Asia relations: “India’s domestic priorities’ impact on its Indo-Pacific relations is considered, an overall update and assessment of India’s ‘vision’ of the Indo-Pacific and its interests and roles are important. This complements last year’s approach, which assessed India’s involvement and integration with East Asia in terms of diplomacy, defence, trade/investment, and multilateralism.”

 Limaye says that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement at the East Asia Summit in 2018 can be seen as India’s official response to the United States’ “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and other regional pronouncements relating to the Indo-Pacific from ASEAN, Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and others. “It is significant that India has issued such a comprehensive and clear conception of its interests and approach to the region; an articulated synergy, but not identity, with the US and its allies,’’ Limaye wrote in his research paper.

There are many opportunities for a constructive partnership waiting to be tapped, says the EWC report which got published last week. It says, “Expanding cooperation with Southeast Asia and India in trade, investment and tourism is important to South Korea, given their economic dynamism and large populations. In addition, South Korea’s unusually high levels of trade and overseas production dependence on China have made it urgent to seek diversification to NSP partner countries as production costs and geopolitical risks rise in China.”

 Even to pursue its North Korea policy, South Korea’s dependence on ASEAN and India is coincidental. No wonder, there is strong buzz to include South Korea as a strategic partner on “expanded” QUAD and involve the East Asian nation along with Japan and Australia to be a vital partner in countering China’s threat in the South China Sea and in the Indo-Pacific region along with the US and India.

Perhaps the most important intermediate outcome is the expansion of Korea’s diplomatic resources on Southeast Asia and India. Talking about Seoul’s new thrust on India, Limaye told The Daily Guardian: “There is a push and pull factor here. Both Seoul and New Delhi have economic, diplomatic and security reasons to enhance relations and have sought to do so. It has been a slow process for technical reasons related to specific issues but also because both countries have other priorities.”

 Apart from establishing foreign bureaus in ASEAN countries to strengthen mutual ties, South Korea is also scheduled to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with Indonesia in 2020 and is currently negotiating FTAs with the Philippines and Malaysia, while talks to upgrade FTAs with ASEAN and India are under way. S

ome of the few measurable goals of the NSP are to expand South Korea’s trade with Southeast Asia to US $200 billion by 2020 and with India to $50 billion by 2030. The EWC report here mentions the fact that “with global trade set to see a sharp contraction as a result of Covid-19, it is simply unrealistic to expect the bilateral trade volume to increase by a staggering $49 billion this year. A silver lining is that Korea’s trade with the region may rebound rapidly in the post-Covid-19 era as the pandemic accelerates global supply chain realignment out of China that highly favours Southeast Asia.’’

Ties with India, however, may require more activism from the South Korean government. Limaye told TDG: “Both South Korea and India wish to be less economically dependent upon China and have been subject to a variety of Chinese pressures over diplomacy, defense decisions and economic competition. Hence, some efforts to expand bilateral opportunities make sense.”

 Ah Oh’s report says, “Economic cooperation between Korea and India has been stagnant since 2010 despite the India-Korea FTA signed in 2009. The economic size of India is comparable to that of Southeast Asia, but Korea’s trade with India in 2019 is only about 14 percent of its trade with the latter. Korea’s people-to-people exchange with and public exposure to India is considerably limited compared to Southeast Asia. The NSP can thus have a larger impact by addressing such a serious gap.” Here the EWC report suggests that one of the key roles the government can play is to support greater public and business understanding of India’s potential as Korea’s key partner. “It could be done through more investment in diplomatic resources and public diplomacy with India,’’ says the report.

Since last year, Seoul and New Delhi have moved steadily to strengthen partnership prospects in areas ranging from cyber security and cyber terrorism to defence production. South Korean defence manufacturing companies have been invited to invest in India and assured of all necessary assistance to facilitate investment and joint ventures. The two countries reportedly have also formulated a “roadmap” to take bilateral defence industry cooperation forward to bridge the existing limitations in the current defence cooperation.

Limaye says, “There have been efforts to look for defense industry collaboration and cooperation but these have so far been challenging.”

Perhaps New Delhi and Seoul need to effectively change that perception first to take their mutual diplomatic ties to a new high in Asian diplomacy.