India-South Korea relations: Emerging dynamics of the Indo-Pacific
The close political, economic, and cultural ties and respect for democratic values by India and South Korea has advanced the agenda of promoting regional stability and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region
Last month, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin visited India and held talks with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on trade and investment, defence, science and technology, energy, space, semiconductors, and emerging technologies. India and South Korea are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.
The close political, economic and cultural ties and respect for democratic values by India and South Korea at bilateral/trilateral level and in multilateral forums has advanced the agenda of promoting regional stability and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region.
The natural alignment of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korea’s ‘New Southern Policy’ has opened a new chapter in the bilateral relations between the two countries.
Both countries share a rich history and cultural heritage, which has helped to strengthen their bilateral relationship. India and South Korea have a long history of cultural and trade relations dating back to ancient times.
The two countries share close cultural ties through Buddhism, which was introduced to Korea from India in the 4th century. According to "SamgukYusa" or "The Heritage History of the Three Kingdoms" written in the 13th century, a Princess from Ayodhya (Suriratna) went to Korea, married King Kim-Suro, and became Queen Hur Hwang-ok in the year 48 AD.
In the 20th century, post-World War-II, although India supported South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953) by sending medical units to South Korea but because of the cold war and the great power rivalries, the bilateral relations remained minimal.
It was only in the 1990s that both countries began to actively pursue a closer relationship which was primarily due to the liberalisation of the Indian economy through the ‘Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation’ policy reforms adopted by the Indian government in 1991 and the South Korean government's 'Look South' policy.
Since then, India and South Korea have developed a comprehensive strategic partnership, which has expanded to include a range of areas such as defence, trade, investment, and technology etc. Both countries are facing similar kinds of foreign policy challenges in the context of regional transformation in the Indo-Pacific. The immediate concerns of both nations lay in their neighbourhood.
India has two difficult neighbours - China and Pakistan - to handle while South Korean concerns are pivoted around North Korea and the Korean Peninsula. Despite a fairly large difference in their relationship with the USA, perspectives of India and South Korea on the USA mostly converge.
Role of China in nuclearizing Pakistan in India’s neighbourhood and nuclearizing North Korea in South Korea’s neighbourhood is also a common thread emanated from China that binds together India and South Korea.
Recognizing India’s contribution and commitment towards the global non-proliferation efforts, South Korea has time and again reaffirmed and advocated that India should be made a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in order to further strengthen the international non-proliferation regime. Thus, defence cooperation is an important area of India-South Korea relations.
The two countries share a common interest in maintaining regional stability and security in the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific. The annual bilateral trade between India and South Korea is approximately USD 24 billion as per data from Korea International Trade Association.
The two countries have signed several agreements to boost trade and investment, including a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2009 and a Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement in 2015.
The ongoing re-negotiations between India and South Korea to upgrade the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is an important step by the Modi government to address the tariff and non-tariff barriers and deepen relationships in the services sector where India has an edge.
The nine rounds of ongoing re-negotiations led by the Department of Commerce, Government of India, till now will certainly help in bridging the trade deficit because the CEPA signed in 2009 and operationalized in 2010 under the previous UPA government had left several aspects that could have favoured India.
South Korea has also been an important partner in the Modi government’s flagship initiative of ‘Make in India’ in the last 9 years since this policy was launched. Hyundai Motor Group, Samsung Electronics, LG Group and Kia have been the leaders among South Korean companies that have invested in India and have now become the most trusted brand among the Indian public in respective sectors.
The establishment of the Korean Industrial Park in India is slowly and steadily helping the Korean small and medium enterprises to benefit from the 'Make in India' initiative which is a Win-Win situation for India’s MSME sector also. Technology cooperation is an area where India and South Korea have significant potential for collaboration.
South Korea is a global leader in technology, particularly in areas such as electronics, information and communication technology (ICT), and artificial intelligence (AI). India, on the other hand, has a large pool of skilled IT professionals and a growing startup ecosystem.
India-South Korea relations have come a long way since their ancient cultural and trade ties. The two countries share a common interest in maintaining regional stability and security. The relationship between India and South Korea is poised to grow stronger in the coming years, driven by the strong economic and strategic interests of both countries.
***The author is working as a Senior Research Fellow with India Foundation; views expressed here are his own