India seeks to deepen ties with South Korea: Trade, security among reasons for both nations to draw closer

  • Deepening of ties between India and South Korea is a pragmatic and plausible outcome for the two nations.

  • For India's burgeoning market, South Korea is a stepping stone.

  • The growing depth and harmony between the two nations can be attributed to the synthesis between New Delhi's Act East Policy and South Korea's New Southern Policy

In the past four years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited South Korea twice and held two summit meetings with President Moon Jae-in. Economically, diplomatically and defence-wise, both India and South Korea only have to gain from each other's company. Especially with an aggressive and very observant China in the fray. Deepening of ties between India and South Korea is a pragmatic and plausible outcome for the two nations which are seeking to upgrade their position in the global map.

 India seeks to deepen ties with South Korea: Trade, security among reasons for both nations to draw closer

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. PTI

A paradigm shift in diplomatic behaviour was seen as recently as 2017, immediately after Moon assumed office. He had sent a special convoy to meet Modi. The prime minister had then "recalled" his visit to South Korea in May 2015 to upgrade bilateral relations via the Special Strategic Partnership and emphasised on the deepening defence partnership. A year later, Moon's four-day visit to India in July 2018 was one of the longest by any leader of the two countries. Moon had attended a total of 18 events, of which he was accompanied by Modi in 11 of them.

While Seoul wants to reduce dependence on China and the United States, for India's burgeoning market, South Korea is the stepping stone.

New Delhi's Act East Policy and South Korea's New Southern Policy

This growing depth and harmony between the two nations can be attributed to the synthesis between New Delhi's Act East Policy and South Korea's New Southern Policy. India's Look East Policy focuses on strengthening economic, cultural and civilisational relations and new strategic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Moon's New Southern Policy aims to strengthen economic-cooperation and strategic relations with India and other countries of Southeast Asia. This is perhaps the first time that South Korea has made a foreign policy initiative for India and officially documented it.

Moon’s New Southern Policy aims to strengthen the economic cooperation and build a prosperous and people-centric community of peace while India’s “Act East Policy,” as articulated by Modi, focuses on promoting deeper economic engagement, reinvigorating cultural and civilisational relations, and developing new strategic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral as well as at multilateral levels. Both these policies show convergence in their objectives and should further strengthen the Special Strategic Partnership between India and South Korea.

Forging ties based only on economic gains would snap them soon after they are forged. Both nations are aware of this. A cultural relationship would provide the much-needed glue to this bond.

In November, 2018, South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook was the chief guest of the Yogi Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh during the Deepotsava celebrations. She had come with a purpose – to revisit the "deep" connect that South Korea has with Ayodhya. An ancient Korean text 'SamgukYusa' details how a princess from Ayodhya, Suriratna, had married King Kim-Suro. Together, they stated a ruling dynasty, the lineage of which is known as the Karak in South Korean history. Kim Yoon-ok, wife of former president Lee Myung-bak, two former presidents – Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam as well as former prime minister Kim Jong-pil trace their ancestry to this royal couple.

A month after the visit, in December, 2018, India began visa on arrival facility for South Koreans.

Not surprising then that President Moon had in July, 2018 signed an MoU regarding the Queen Suriratna Memorial Project.

Robust, rising China

The New Southern Policy was rolled out after South Korea's diplomatic row with China over the deployment of the US terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. Beijing targeted South Korea's business interests over this deployment, exports to China were curtailed. Seoul soon realised that it needed to expand and diversify its trade destinations.

According to the Observer Research Foundation, South Korea's trade relations with China increased manifold due to its "economic liberalisation" and the rise of the Chinese economy. China soon emerged as its top export destination. But things changed in the late 2000s when a controversy over the origins and legacy of Koguryo dynasty emerged. The people and policymakers of South Korea came to believe that Beijing’s claim to a "territory which was part of the ancient Korean kingdom reflected China’s imperialist mindset".

The report further states that a survey conducted in 2006 had revealed that 58.8 percent of South Koreans viewed China’s economic rise as "an opportunity," while 41 percent saw it as a "threat".

Booming markets, technological advancement

In his speech before leaving for South Korea on Thursday, Modi spoke about how the country is an important partner for India's key initiatives such as the 'Make in India' initiative.

"As fellow market economies, our needs and strengths are complementary. South Korea is an important partner for our 'Make in India' initiative as well as in our 'Start Up India' and 'Clean India' initiatives," he pointed out.

In 2018, Moon Jae-in and Modi participated in the completion ceremony of the newly-built cellphone major Samsung Electronics' mobile phone factory in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. The Korean company had also announced that it was investing $760 million in the expansion, making the unit the largest in the world. Firms such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai are familiar names in the Indian market, and also make a remarkable contribution to our economy.

According to a report in The Diplomat, India’s total exports to South Korea stand at $4.95 billion, which is just 1.03 percent of South Korea’s total imports. On the other hand, India’s imports from South Korea are $15.1 billion — 3.3 percent of India’s total imports. The report also mentions that there are approximately 500 South Korean companies currently operating in India, many of which are involved in Modi’s flagship initiatives such as Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, Start-up India, Building Industrial Corridors, and Smart Cities.

During Moon Jae-in's last visit, it was announced that India and South Korea have agreed to raise bilateral trade to $50 billion by 2030.

The two nations will need each other not only to enhance their respective economies but also to curb terror and boost military strength.

Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 22:02:47 IST