India hosted South Korean President Park Geun-hye in the second week of January 2014; weeks after India hosted Japan’s emperor, and also readied to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the guest of honour at the Republic Day celebration.
South Korea wishes to be an important part of India’s Look East Policy. Park’s visit focused primarily on the multi-billion dollar POSCO steel plant clearance and the port project in Odisha, which is one of the major South Korean ventures in India. Nine new pacts,aimed at boosting mutual cooperation and understanding, were signed. Park held delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on global, regional and bilateral issues. India’s Business Standard has referred to Parks trip to India as ‘sales diplomacy’. It indicates that despite a strategic partnership angle to the relationship, the objective of South Korea’s diplomacy with India remains primarily commercial. South Korea is currently the fifth largest source of investment in India, and bilateral trade exceeded US$18 billion in 2012.
What was the outcome of Park’s visit to India? Where is the India-South Korea relationship heading? What are its future prospects?
Balance and Tilt: Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information
The Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says, “….would boost defence engagement and take it beyond the purchase of South Korean defence equipment to an area where Seoul is strong - maintaining the sanctity of its land and maritime borders.” International Business Times reports, “Under the deal, the two countries are likely to exchange key details of nuclear activities taking place in North Korea and Pakistan.” Sharing intelligence reports will strengthen the roots of security preparedness of both these nations. This very move may bring about interesting tilts to the balance of Asian political diplomacy, especially as Pakistan is widely believed to have had a key role in North Korea's nuclear programme. As per the agreement, the two countries will not share the information with any third party. “The two leaders welcomed the conclusion of the Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information, which they believe will contribute to enhancing mutual confidence and cooperation in the military field,” a joint statement said. This will strengthen their defence ties. In recent years, both countries have conducted joint naval exercises, anti-piracy operations, and worked together on defence R&D.
On the economic front, both countries seemed to maximise dividends through engagement. First, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resolved the POSCO imbroglio, hung since 2005 because of several environmental and regulatory hurdles. It will soon be operational after the revalidation of its environmental clearance. He promised to “grant mining concessions which are at an advanced stage of processing.” He said, ‘’this project will confirm that economic growth and environmental protection can go hand in hand.” In the meanwhile, President Park Geun-hye also called for the reopening of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. She feels that both countries have enough potential to increase the volume of trade and investment. President Park Geun-hye said that after the integrated steel plant starts operating, it would attract many large-scale investments from Korea. It should be remembered that South Korea was one of the earliest countries to invest in India after economic reforms and liberalisation took place. Companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai Motors are household names in India.
Other Aspects of Engagement
Despite pursuing a ‘Look East’ policy since the early 1990s, South Korea was not become a part of its eastward momentum when it initiated the policy. It was only after 1997 that South Korea started considering India an important destination for investment.
There were other aspects of engagement as well. India and South Korea signed agreements to deter cyber threats, develop and strengthen mutual friendly relations in the field of broadcasting, carry forward ‘Nalanda diplomacy’, cooperate in cultural activities, develop further cooperation in the field of prospective technologies, and promote the peaceful uses of outer space.
Park’s visit just before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s arrival underlines the fact that India has started considering East Asia important in its foreign policy map. This particular visit has not only added to the dynamism of India’s Look East Policy but also marks a new beginning for their bilateral relations. Although the long pending minesweeper contract remains unresolved, both countries’ mutual interest in each other’s economy and areas of comparative advantage is expected to invite much engagement in the near future, taking it beyond ‘sales diplomacy’.