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Pushing the Korea-India Strategic Partnership Forward


By Nicholas Hamisevicz

On the day before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hosted numerous leaders and heads-of-state for the Nuclear Security Summit, he met bilaterally with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India to discuss enhancing the two countries strategic partnership. Looking to build on the intensity and frequency of the high-level meetings that followed President Lee’s visit to India in 2010, the two leaders signed a joint statement emphasizing high-level visits and additional cooperation on specific strategic sectors like defense collaboration, nuclear issues, positive trade and investment, and other important items that respectively enhance each country’s regional and global influence.

As the two countries seek to deepen their connections, they will increasingly face sensitive and difficult issues that can slow down the progress of growing this partnership, some of which have already cropped up. However, South Korea and India must be able to consistently work together through the mechanisms already set up for the strategic partnership and push to find increased areas of cooperation for both sides. This will help South Korea and India form a strategic partnership that gives them the tools, connections, and influence to prosper in the Asia-Pacific century.

As previewed before the meeting, the Joint Statement between Prime Minister Singh and President Lee started off with political and security issues. The two sides rightly “reaffirmed” that the India-South Korea Joint Commission, co-chaired by the respective foreign ministers, should meet every year. Looking to rectify the failure of their defense ministers to meet last year, the two sides agreed to have South Korea’s defense minister visit India later this year.  South Korea and India missed an opportunity by not having these meetings in 2011, but prioritizing a yearly Joint Commission meeting and regularizing meetings of defense ministers will help the two countries define and implement the “strategic” aspects of their strategic partnership.

Despite the strategic partnership, India and South Korea have often seemed uneasy getting more involved in each other’s most important security concerns, Pakistan and North Korea respectively. Having recently announced that it will launch a satellite in celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday in April, North Korea’s actions are seemingly contrary to the understanding North Korea and the United States appeared to have on February 29, 2012, and a launch will be in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. India has offered statements in the past on North Korean provocations against South Korea, and although North Korea has only announced it will launch a satellite, India and South Korea included wording in the Joint Statement that the two sides “urged that nothing should be done which increases tensions in the region and violates the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

When two countries in the Asia-Pacific talk about improving their strategic ties, China always looms large. In fact, it was the second question at the media briefing by India’s Foreign Secretary Sanjay Singh following the meeting between Prime Minister Singh and President Lee. Foreign Secretary Singh mentioned India’s “excellent” relationship with both China and Korea and noted that India tries to base all of its bilateral relationships on the quality of the relationships themselves and not on outside factors. Appropriate for a government official to say, but there is concern in India regarding China’s “string of pearls,” the theory that China uses better relations with countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Bangladesh to strategically block India’s options for maneuvering in the Indian Ocean and in the broader Asian region. Chinese officials counter by illustrating how India’s improving relations and development of strategic partnerships from ASEAN up to Japan and South Korea can appear to be encirclement, blocking China’s own maneuverability. As South Korea and India deepen their strategic relationship, the China factor will always be there. Thus, these regular high-level meetings will be important for the two sides to develop talking points and explain the benefits of the strategic partnership as South Korea and India move forward.

As the South Korean and Indian relationship broadens in scope, there will be more situations where the two sides will be asking the other for action, commitment, or support on issues that one of the country’s feels is in their specific national interest. This has already started to occur, and those issues stuck out during these meetings between India and South Korea. South Korea has been looking to enhance its defense export industry and was hoping it would be a good match with the Indian military’s desire to modernize and import defense equipment to help it do so. South Korea hoped this would occur last year, but its KT-1 fighter trainers lost the bid to supply India’s air force with 75 new trainers. Thus, the Joint Statement states President Lee emphasized that South Korea wanted to increase cooperation with India’s military and defense industry.

South Korea is also looking to build upon its success in nuclear cooperation with India. Having signed a nuclear cooperation deal last year, South Korea included in this Joint Statement that President Lee requested India set aside specific allotment for South Korean nuclear reactors. South Korea has seen India do this for the larger nuclear powers like Russia, France, and the United States, and would like similar treatment.

For India, though not in the statement, press reports suggested Prime Minister Singh asked President Lee for South Korea’s support for India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. Concern that India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, received special treatment in its nuclear cooperation with the United States, along with other difficult issues has kept India outside of these groups. Already having secured the U.S.’s support for India’s membership during President Barack Obama’s last visit to India, Prime Minister Singh was hoping to get South Korea behind India’s membership as well.

Lastly, both countries are trying to maintain economic growth. Prime Minister Singh’s office prepared for this meeting by discussing the latest developments on POSCO’s delayed steel project investment in the Indian state of Orissa. At a meeting with the CEOs of Korean companies in Seoul, Prime Minister Singh tried to reassure them that delays in the POSCO project were the exception to the rule and that other Korea companies like Hyundai had succeeded in India, and furthermore, that future Korean companies and investment will profit from being in India. These economic concerns connect with worries that the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) the two countries signed is not benefitting everyone. The two countries have been quietly trying to renegotiate some aspects of the agreement, yet President Lee and Prime Minister Singh were trying to demonstrate the CEPA’s overall benefit to increase trade for both countries.

The meetings and events tied to the bilateral summit provide encouraging signs for enhancing the South Korea–India strategic partnership. The emphasis on needing multiple layers of high level interaction as well as connections between the people of South Korea and India, as seen in the visa agreement that was signed, will help push this strategic partnership forward beyond the administrations of Lee and Singh. Even having the two countries push each other on sensitive issues is a good sign that both South Korea and India understand the benefit of having the other’s support in regional and global contexts and have a desire to work together on tough issues. Now the two countries must act on and implement these agreements and understandings. Meetings between Singh and Lee have encouraged development of this strategic partnership in the past. It will be important again for South Korea and India to use the momentum from this meeting  to push the bilateral relationship into one of the more active and influential strategic partnerships in the Asia-Pacific century.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Himanshu Sarpatdar’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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