India's incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government showed decisive intent from the very beginning to bring more dynamism in India’s foreign policy. Exemplary of this was its policy towards Southeast and East Asia. The erstwhile Look East Policy (LEP) was not only renamed to Act East Policy (AEP), but it was announced that more substance would be put into India’s relations with these countries. Apart from more economic and political exchanges, the new policy sought to invoke more strategic and deep-rooted cultural connections of India with these countries. It was expected that the Korean peninsula, which consists of North and South Koreas would also receive more attention.
India-South Korea economic exchanges, cultural and educational connections and political understandings have been spectacular from the early 1990s. For example, the bilateral trade between the two countries, which was less than US$1 billion, reached over US$20 billion in 2011-12. India and South Korea signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2009; in January 2010, India and South Korea also signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA).
However, the momentum in India-South Korea bilateral relations was getting slowed down in the last year of the previous Indian government. The CEPA, especially, rather than propelling bilateral trade was alleged to be creating hindrances after the first two years of its implementations. There were also differences of opinion between India and South Korea over investment and business issues.
With the NDA government coming to power, it was expected that India and South Korea would be able to overcome these hindrances and invest renewed energy in their relations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited South Korea in May 2015 and expectedly indicated a new and important beginning in India-South Korea relations. During his one-and-a-half day visit, India and South Korea signed a number of agreements and MoUs in all possible areas. The two countries agreed to hold annual meetings of their foreign and defence ministers. Cooperation in the fields of defence, defence production, cultural and educational exchanges and various other common concerns were addressed during the visit. Furthermore, both countries enhanced their SPA to Special Strategic Partnership (SSP) and declared that India’s constructive role in resolving North Korean nuclear and missile issues along with establishment of peace regime in the region would be welcomed. India and South Korea also resolved to hold a review process of the CEPA and revise it.
South Korea was invited to participate in the Government of India’s flagship projects, ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’.
However, subsequent follow-ups have been far from satisfactory. There have been some minor achievements such as starting of daily flights between Delhi and Seoul and clearance to export Indian mangoes to South Korea, but on most of the critical issues, a lot still needs to be done. The inability to bring momentum to bilateral relations is equally attributable to South Korea. For example, while India wants more Korean investments in India’s manufacturing sector, South Korean companies do their manufacturing activities through least connections with Indian companies.
Similarly, South Korea is ready to sell LNG tankers to India without sharing its technology and know-how. While South Korea is worried about decreasing bilateral trade it is unwilling to help with India’s trade deficits. In all truth, however, this was expected to happen and therefore it was upon the NDA government to bring political will to overcome these problems. It appears that India, under the NDA government, has also not been able to look at the broad and long-term reciprocity and the political leadership has left it to bureaucrats to decide foreign policy via their narrow and mechanical approaches. For example, the review of the CEPA was declared by the Indian Prime Minister in May 2015 and even after over two years, the process is far from over. It was reported in early-June 2017 that India is implementing the highest number of trade regulations against South Korea and it does not say well about this bilateral relationship.
It is also important to note that the NDA government’s manifest closeness with Japan and show of little reluctance to be part of an alliance against China, make South Korea uncomfortable. South Korea might have a security alliance with the US but it has strong economic exchanges with China; and it would not like to be in a situation where it has to choose between the US and China or Japan and China.
To South Korea’s further discomfort, the NDA government also had some interactions with North Korea. Overall, India-South Korea relations during the NDA government continue to face the hindrances that crept up right at the beginning.
India-North Korea relations have also been almost static during the three years of NDA government in India. In 2015, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited India and Indian Minister Kiren Rijiju, after attending a function at the North Korean Embassy in New Delhi, expressed India’s intent to maintain good relations with North Korea. Actually, India had consistent diplomatic relations with North Korea albeit after the revelations of nuclear and missile technology exchanges between North Korea and Pakistan, the relations had become cold. Relations strained further with economic sanctions and the diplomatic isolation of North Korea by the international community.
Notwithstanding these strains, India continues to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea and maintains bilateral diplomatic relations. Few extra activities in the India-North Korea relations in 2015 may be read as India’s intent to explore whether it could play a more active role in the East Asian region via North Korea.
There are also speculations that former US President Barack Obama's administration was also in favour of India’s more active role and India’s actions were prompted by covert US support. However, soon India realised that the cost of flirting with North Korea would be huge and it would be premature for India to enter into this venture; it withdrew itself.
Overall, in the past three years of the NDA rule, India’s foreign policy towards South Korea has not brought any significant change in their bilateral relations. Similarly there is nothing new to say about India’s relations with North Korea.
Although, India made good gestures in the first one year, on most of the issues, the follow-ups have been slow or non-existent. The blame for this stagnation cannot be put on the diplomats and bureaucrats, but on the political leadership of both the countries. It is urgent now for the NDA government to show that the dynamism, which was promised in the AEP, is not just loud and empty promises but that they indeed have substance and political will power. The leaders simply congratulating each other over twitter will not achieve this.