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How Moon Jae-in’s visit can provide a new impetus to India-Korea relations

The visit will provide a great opportunity for President Moon and Prime Minister Modi to prepare a road map to carry the partnership to the next level.

 |  5-minute read |   11-07-2018
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South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to make his first visit to India from July 8 onwards. Understandably, the visit assumes considerable importance in view of his rising stature as a tall Asian leader who showed wisdom and statesmanship in handling the recent peace processes on the Korean Peninsula. It was he who emphasised how diplomacy, and not force, should be used as an effective instrument to reduce tensions between North Korea and the US. Second, a presidential visit from South Korea is happening after a gap of more than four years and it was in January, 2014 that Park Geun-hye , the previous president, visited Delhi. Third, Mr Moon’s visit comes at a time when the India-South Korea ties have matured into what is called a special strategic partnership. India has described South Korea as an indispensable partner in its Act East policy.

It is more than 45 years since the two countries established their diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. And during this period, they have succeeded in fashioning a robust, multi-dimensional partnership encompassing a wide range of interests, including nuclear disarmament, maritime security, regional economic cooperation, counter terrorism, and energy cooperation. Both are interested in contributing to the creation of a regional order which is open, balanced and inclusive, and free from any single country’s dominance. Since both countries depend on sea-borne trade for their economic prosperity, they share a strong commitment to ensure freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the open seas.

India’s engagements with South Korea have witnessed many important landmarks in recent years and their security and economic interests have converged across a wide range of subjects. They forged a strategic partnership in 2010 and followed it up by signing a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA). After the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bilateral engagements received stronger impetus. His official visit to Seoul in 2015 proved to be a major turning point in the bilateral relations. First, they upgraded the bilateral ties to a “special strategic partnership” and decided to add more content in such areas as foreign affairs, defence, trade and investment. They have agreed to hold annual summit meetings of their top-most leaders alternatively in New Delhi or Seoul or on the sidelines of multilateral events.

moonjae_071118060222.jpgPhoto: Indiatoday.in

The foreign ministers further decided to meet annually in a structured framework. They also agreed to strengthen consultations between the two respective National Security Councils on security, defence and cyber related issues. Additionally, they also agreed to have regular dialogue at the joint secretary/vice-minister level in the two plus format. In addition, a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CEPA) also came into effect by 2010 and it provided enormous scope for expanding bilateral trade and investments. The volume of trade rose to $20.5 billion in 2011, but tended to decline due to unstable global economic climate. In 2017 bilateral trade picked up to record $20 billion again. Both countries have also reviewed the working of the CEPA and made certain modifications to make it more effective.

One of PM Modi’s abiding interests is to invite foreign investment to India for bolstering his “Make in India” programme. He said, “We have a special focus on infrastructure and developing a world class manufacturing sector. Korea can be a leading partner in this enterprise.” The EXIM Bank of Korea has already pledged $10 billion for mutual cooperation in manufacture for priority sectors including smart cities, railways, power generation and transmission.

President Moon’s visit comes at a time when both countries are well poised to expand their security and economic engagements. Mr. Moon’s New Southern Policy is basically driven by a strong desire to lessen Seoul’s undue dependence on the traditional partners such as the US, China, Japan and Russia and to seek to pursue a balanced diplomacy by strengthening its relations with countries like India, ASEAN, and Australia.

President Moon’s new initiative on his southward strategy rests on some basic concerns. For one thing, US policies under President Trump have become unpredictable. Many Koreans complain that Trump has still not articulated his vision on Washington’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. They are also wary of Trump’s protectionist policies. His latest decision to impose additional tariffs on Japan, China and India has further deepened their concerns.

Second, Seoul’s relations with China, though good, have caused certain serious strains in recent months due to the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defence) system provided by the US to South Korea. Economic engagements between the two were seriously affected by China’s resentment.

Third, relations with Japan despite their security alliance with the US are far from cordial as they are still plagued by historical issues.

In the pursuit of his new southward strategy, President Moon has already visited Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. It is now his turn to visit New Delhi to map out a new agenda for bilateral cooperation. It would be relevant to remember that President Moon had his first official meeting with PM Modi in July 2017 at Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 meeting. Very soon South Korea decided to elevate its relations with India to the level of its four traditional partners the US, China, Japan and Russia.

The present visit will provide a great opportunity for President Moon and PM Modi to prepare a road map to carry the partnership to the next level. The potential of the partnership has not been fully tapped. For instance, it is many years since they signed an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. But nothing concrete has come out of it though Seoul has been very eager to play a role in India’s civil nuclear field. The failure of the POSCO project is another case where a great opportunity of cooperation was unfortunately missed out. But on the positive side, Korean companies like the Hyundai, Samsung, and LG have become household names in India and Korea’s contributions to India’s automobile and electronics industries have become quite phenomenal. In this sense, President Moon’s visit will hopefully provide a new impetus to further deepening of South Korean involvement in India’s economy and herald a new era in India-South Korea partnership.

(This article was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The original version can be found here.)

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KV Kesavan KV Kesavan

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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