Expressing an interest in working closely with South Korea as a “special strategic partner,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in his usual twittering style in Korean congratulated the newly elected President Moon Jae-in on 10 May for his election victory. Modi also expressed an interest for a meeting with the new President. This congratulatory message may seem to be a customary one, especially when Moon Jae-in’s victory was an anticipated one, but there is a necessity to take a thoughtful note of Modi’s message which is relevant for India-ROK relations in Asia.
A Special Partnership Forging the “Special Strategic Partnership” has been a strategic requirement for both India and South Korea. The security and strategic developments in Asia in recent years have brought them together. Their geographical location as two important countries at two ends of Asia – South Korea in Northeast Asia and India in South Asia, helped both to promote a strategic partnership of a “special” description. In fact, enhancing further the “Strategic Partnership” that was established in January 2010, the “Special” component was brought to the India-ROK partnership during the May 2016 visit of Modi to Seoul. This “special strategic partnership” strengthened New Delhi’s East Asia outreach, where India located South Korea as an important partner in transcending its Look East policy to Act East policy. In response, moving beyond its usual “China prism”, South Korea identified India’s potential as a power-in-making in Asia. The foundation of this partnership was embedded in India’s and South Korea’s shared commitments to democratic ideals and to an open society believing in a liberal international economic order. As a result, the fundamentals of this partnership were officially located within the premise where India foresaw South Korea as an “indispensable partner” in the Act East strategy, whereas South Korea aimed to explore ways to factor India as a possible partner in its broader Eurasian as well as Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI). These expressions of interest however have been mostly rhetorical and limited to official parlance. Neither has the “strategic” component seen substantial progress nor has the “special” component been nurtured further. This requires a “plus” contemplation.
The political establishments in both countries need a “plus” stratagem to identify the other side as a “strategic associate.” South Korea has ignored India as an important power in its strategic base, being primarily occupied in its Northeast Asian security matrix, relying heavily on the United States for security and economically on China. The unstable political environment under the ousted President Park Geun-hye discouraged the Indian political establishment to a great extent from pursuing the India-South Korea “special” partnership. Continuous political engagement always comes as a source of strength to democratic practices and foreign relations partnerships. New Delhi and Seoul had officially agreed in their Joint Statement released on 18 May 2015 to establish a process of annual bilateral summit meetings, which have not seen much progress. The backbone of these annual summit meetings must be foreign ministers’ meeting and regular parliamentary exchanges. The actual seed of this summit must be a “2+2” mechanism, involving the defense and foreign affairs constituents and through a continuous consultation between the two sides’ National Security Council structures.
Need for a Modi-Moon Doctrine
More than an annual summit meeting, a fresh political context has to be built on “pragmatic thinking” between India and South Korea. Both leaderships need to position each other’s country as a “priority” in their respective foreign policy approaches. This priority could be drawn when a parallel approach is clearly visible in Moon’s and Modi’s political advocacy. Moon has talked about “National Interest First” approach in Seoul’s foreign policy undertakings. That complements Modi’s “India First” approach. What needs to be noted however is that this Modi-Moon doctrine cannot be built on a periphrastic political context. Practical underpinning of Asia, especially the changing Indo-Pacific regional context, must compel the two sides to incept this consideration. That clearly needs a “plus” thinking on the part of both leaderships.
Given the geopolitical compulsions both Seoul and New Delhi are currently caught up with, relying on powers like the United States and China is not in their ideal interest. Seoul is yet to completely gain confidence from Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Beijing’s approach towards Seoul after the deployment of THAAD has complicated its strategic and economic choices. India is still finding it hard to figure out how to face the strategic challenges that China’s One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative will pose to India’s rise and position in Asia’s neighborhood in future. The goodwill created in India-US relations under Modi and Barack Obama has come to a temporary halt since New Delhi’s confidence in the Donald Trump administration is yet to solidify, similar to South Korea. As a result, India and South Korea need each other today more than ever and need to come out of this “dependability” factor in their foreign policy. Both must aim to craft an autonomous mainstream of thinking to find new partners in which both can see each other as complementary powers. Moon has already argued that Seoul should learn how to “say no to America” and that it must encourage India to emerge as a favorable strategic option for Seoul as a “priority” country in the foreign policy of the new dispensation. Besides, given the current mistrust between South Korea and China, India might emerge as a substitute viable option in the greater Asian context, if not an alternative power to Beijing, in South Korea’s foreign policy. Seoul’s “New Asia Initiative”, crafted in 2010 under President Lee Myung-bak, needs rethinking under Moon and that might expand the Korean horizon of strategic understanding on India and South Asian affairs more positively. In brief, Moon needs to develop a more deliberate “Indo-Pacific” Korean foreign policy, which must break the barrier of restricting Seoul’s outlook to Northeast Asia.
New Delhi on its part needs to position South Korea as a “key strategic partner” in its Act East policy. A one-term Presidency in South Korea should not be seen as a barrier in Indian political mainstream thinking. A stronger relationship with South Korea needs to be crafted both under India’s bilateral and regional deliberations. A greater political understanding, closer defense partnership, and solid economic partnership will reduce India’s dependency on regional and global platforms and will reinforce India’s foreign policy positioning in Asia. This will augment Modi’s political positioning in India, to particularly enhance his “Make in India” campaign. Both India and South Korea are ranked among the top 15 GDP-ranked economies today, but their bilateral trade contact is figured at around $16 billion only. Even though India has roughly US$10 billion trade deficit with South Korea, it should not become a barrier to overall economic engagement. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed between the two countries in January 2010 needs to be strengthened. Seoul is an important factor in the regional economic architecture, especially in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which India must take a strong cognisance of. A closer economic negotiation and contacts will be helpful for India’s greater economic engagement in East Asia. Besides, India has lately identified South Korea as a potential defense partner. India-South Korea defense industry cooperation has seen an upswing, especially in shipyard building. That supplements the “Make in India” campaign of Prime Minister Modi. But what needs to be seen is whether Modi’s leadership can configure a “defense ‘plus’ security ‘plus’ strategic partnership” with Seoul that will be conducive to both India’s and South Korea’s bilateral, regional as well as global positioning in Asia. India must start envisaging South Korea as a possible global partner, similar to how India sees Japan as a global partner today. India needs South Korea in the global governance architecture, especially in pushing the aim for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where South Korea remains a strong supporter. Important matters like South Korea’s support to India’s prospective membership at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will enhance this global partnership further.
The current security conditions in Northeast Asia must also bring India and South Korea together. There is an early signal from Moon that he might have a positive and moderate approach towards North Korea, try to restore the engagement with Pyongyang under a revised “sunshine policy,” and see if the Six-Party Talks can be revived. New actors like India could be invited or indulged to assist the fresh South Korean attempt to bring peace and stability in the region. India has been an ardent advocate of a denuclearized Korean peninsula for long. Besides, India has been complaining of an undercurrent of North Korea-Pakistan nuclear nexus for long, which must encourage Moon to have a positive thought on India’s greater involvement in the Northeast Asian peace process. A nuclear nexus between North Korea and Pakistan, visibly supported by China, is a much-neglected aspect that needs urgent bilateral and regional deliberations.
Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Heads the East Asia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.