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Singh-Lee Meeting: Strategic Partnership Building Before Nuclear Summit


By Nicholas Hamisevicz

Next week, President Lee Myung-bak and South Korea will host numerous leaders and heads-of-state from around the world for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. On the sidelines of the summit, President Lee will host approximately 27 bilateral meetings with various counterparts, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. After a year dedicated to Korea-India relations that included significant cultural exchanges but is still growing substantively, the upcoming summit meeting between President Lee and Prime Minister Singh represents an important opportunity to further strengthen the strategic ties of two of Asia’s rising economies.

In 2010, Korea and India pledged to elevate their relationship to a strategic partnership. With India’s rapid economic growth and growing international role, Korea’s future prosperity will increasingly be tied to India’s own prosperity. As two of Asia’s leading democracies, they also make natural foreign policy allies who share common interests across a wide range of issues.

This meeting between President Lee and Prime Minister Singh can begin to lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic partnership between South Korea – India. Together the two leaders could develop goals that encourage and emphasize to their respective ministries to meet and work toward cooperative projects that build the strategic relationship.  Beyond laying the groundwork for future meetings, the two allies have much to discuss.

Early descriptions from the Indian and South Korean governments suggest the two sides understand the significance of the meeting. India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai previewed the meeting, indicating an agreement on visas will be signed and a Joint Statement will be issued. Foreign Secretary Mathai suggested meetings of the Joint Commission co-chaired by the Foreign Ministers of South Korea and India as well as South Korea’s Defense Minister visiting India will take place in 2012. The Joint Statement from this meeting and the previous Lee-Singh statement will be key starting points for these ministerial meetings. South Korea and India have already had a Director-General level meeting of their Foreign Ministry divisions that cover South and East Asia respectively in 2012. Yet this meeting should be occurring more often than every three years if South Korea and India are to have a true strategic partnership.

In addition to the security and political aspects of a bilateral relationship, economics plays an increasingly large role in connecting countries in Asia. Prime Minister Singh has already been preparing for economic discussions with President Lee. Prime Minister Singh’s office recently held a meeting to discuss POSCO’s steel project in Orissa, India. POSCO has the single largest foreign direct investment in India, but plans for further implementation have had starts and stops because of approval and legal delays.  Furthermore, local residents have been protesting the allocation of land to POSCO for the whole project, compensation for moving, and environmental concerns. POSCO has refused to start construction on the land until all of these issues are cleared up and it is given confidence that it can start its project without delay.

On the free trade front, South Korea and India signed their Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2009, and it entered into effect one year later. However, there are some concerns surrounding its implementation. South Korea and India were quietly trying to renegotiate some of their CEPA, and there have been reports that some on both sides are not benefitting from the deal. Prime Minister Singh and President Lee will have to emphasize the importance of the CEPA for both countries overall development and point to positive success stories to counter any negative feelings over the deal.

South Korea and India need to continue to build on previous meetings to develop a lasting strategic partnership. This particular meeting between President Lee and Prime Minister Singh presents more difficult circumstances than a normal bilateral visit with President Lee hosting the Nuclear Security Summit and numerous important bilateral meetings. However, some of the early meetings preparing for this summit, preview statements, and suggested future meetings between South Korean and Indian officials indicate both sides see an important opportunity to create momentum to support for the enhancement of the strategic partnership between South Korea and India.

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

Photo from Korea.net’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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