India and South Korea share remarkable common interests – all the more remarkable considering how far apart they are geographically, in area, population, average income, living conditions and climate. And then consider how different are Indians and Koreans in ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, religious beliefs and influences. It’s hard to imagine two such important nations and societies with so little in common, yet so closely bound by security and economic considerations.
Yes, appearances can be extremely deceiving in a fast-moving high-tech world in which potentially cataclysmic military pressures, on top of domestic political power struggles and the need for trade and commerce, outweigh so much else. After considering all the differences, just look at all India and South Korea have in common.
As a result of unrelated historical episodes, both are democracies. Nobody would claim that their styles of democracy are perfect, but the plain fact is that voters in India and South Korea can elect their leaders and representatives. Political campaigns in both countries are colorful, often raucous affairs tinged by corruption, vote-buying and other forms of mayhem. Still, candidates in India and Korea – that is, South Korea, the Republic of Korea – make speeches, engage in debates and meet people. They have both evolved as democracies on the basis of very different historical relationships with those western countries most involved in their affairs. Britain ruled the Indian subcontinent for centuries before partition of India from Pakistan and independence for both of them as new nations. U.S. forces occupied Korea south of the 38th parallel after the defeat of Japan in August 1945, and the intervention of the U.S. as leader of the United Nations Command saved the South after invasion by the North in 1950.
Democratic forms, while significant, are far from the only reason for India’s growing ties with South Korea. Perhaps more important in this period of confrontation and crisis throughout Asia is the common denominator of concern about China. Despite the enormous importance of South Korea’s commercial relations with China, the South has to worry about China’s support of its protectorate, North Korea. China may not have been happy about North Korea’s latest nuclear test and may be trying to dissuade North Korea from provocations that will ruin the “stability” of the Korean peninsula. Nonetheless, no one doubts the Chinese would be on the side of the North Koreans in the event of the dreaded Second Korean War, just as they were in the first Korean War.
So why should India share a parallel concern about China? Historically, China as the huge power to the North has always been a threat. The Chinese nipped off portions of India’s northernmost frontier regions in bloody incursions in 1962, and resentment smolders not only over those unresolved clashes but also over much more recent Chinese incursions into Sikkim. Chinese influence, moreover, is paramount in Nepal, which forms a buffer between Tibet and India. As China tightens its grip over Tibet, it is also spreading its writ over Nepal, where communist forces, often conflicting with one another, have been in power since the bloody demise of the monarchy.
Worries about rising Chinese influence on India’s northern frontiers are compounded by China’s strong ties with Pakistan, the recipient of Chinese military support and economic aid. China is providing Pakistan with aircraft as well as tanks and other armaments and is even cooperating with Pakistan on its nuclear program. As a result, India is under intense pressure to beef up and modernize its own forces along the Pakistan border just as it has done along its northern frontiers.
The nuclear issue is especially crucial considering the cooperation extended by A. Q. Khan, the “father” of the Pakistan atomic bomb, to both North Korea and Iran. The adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may seem exaggerated but helps explain India’s ties with South Korea. Clearly both South Korea and India share common cause vis-à-vis China despite the best efforts of leaders in both Seoul and New Delhi to temporize with China, to achieve a modus vivendi within which all powers can live and let live.
An article by Rajaram Panda in the Indian Journal of Defense Studies on March 25 of last year summarizes the depth of military cooperation. “As the first decade of the 21st century ended,” says the article, ‘India- Republic of Korea Military Diplomacy: Past and Future Projections,’ the relationship between the two countries “has assumed robustness in almost all dimensions – political, cultural and economic.” By now, says the article, “a new dimension – security and strategic – that began in the preceding decade is likely to be seen in the expanding military cooperation” on the basis of “a convergence of interests.”
As a result, “closer military relations will not only strengthen the strategic dimension of the bilateral ties,” says the article, but “will also yield economic dividends” as evidenced by “collaboration in projects, development and production of defense technologies, etc.” The article examines “the changing geopolitical environment in the region, the expectations that both will play a stabilising role in a volatile and turbulent Asian region” as well as “the Sino-Indian rivalry and the China factor impacting in the evolution of India-ROK ties….”
On the same day that the article appeared, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to a remarkable understanding with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak on a wide range of issues with emphasis on the “Strategic Partnership” agreed on during Lee’s visit to New Delhi in January 2010. The wording suggested a bond almost as tight as a military alliance.
The Indian prime minister and the South Korean president, meeting this time in Seoul, “agreed to continue high-level exchanges between the defense establishments of both sides, undertake activities as mutually agreed upon for deepening bilateral defense relations and to explore the possibilities of joint ventures in research & development and manufacture of military equipment, including through the transfer of technology and co-production.” Lee, with an eye clearly on commercial as well as military benefits, “underscored that the ROK side wanted to increase cooperation with India in military and defense industry including, inter alia, naval ships, aircrafts, and ship-building.”
Buried lower down in the joint communiqué was a summary of what may, in retrospect, have been the most portentous aspects of the Singh-Lee summit when viewed in the glow of North Korea’s subsequent successes in putting a satellite into orbit and then in conducting its third underground nuclear test.
The two leaders, said the communiqué, “pledged to enhance cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space” in accordance with a memorandum of understanding between the Indian Space Research Organization and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
“The leaders,” it said, “noted that the technical experts from both sides met in Bangalore, India, in March 2011 and identified priority areas of cooperation.” In fact, they “proposed that the concerned agencies of both countries study the possible cooperation in future space activities, including launching a nano-satellite developed by Korean students on an Indian launch vehicle.”
What came next must have aroused the deepest suspicions in Pyongyang and elsewhere. “Both leaders expressed satisfaction at the conclusion of a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement” reached between India and South Korea in July 2011, said the communiqué. “Recognizing the criticality of non-polluting nuclear energy in the economic development of countries,” it went on, Singh and Lee “agreed to discuss specific items of cooperation with the ongoing review of the safety and security aspects of operating nuclear plants.”
President Lee, again with an eye for economic benefits, also “requested that the Indian Government allocate a site for Korean nuclear reactors.” India, aiming for nuclear power generation of 63,000 megawatts by 2032, remains a prime target for aggressive marketing by KEPCO, the Korea Electric Power Corporation, in overall charge of deals for selling reactors produced by Doosan Heavy Industries. The sole manufacturer of reactors for Korean nuclear power plants, Doosan is now producing four reactors for the United Arab Emirates, the first foreign buyer of its reactors.
South Korea is often suspected of plotting secretly to make the transition from construction of nuclear power plants to nuclear weapons, and the mere mention of anything nuclear suggested how closely India and Korea are cooperating on all levels. Always wary of China’s relationship with North Korea, the South has to be as concerned about North Korea and China as is India about Pakistan and China.
Still, the concept of a “strategic partnership” embraces trade and investment as much as military cooperation, and economic considerations may be the primary consideration. A paper published by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in December 2009 showed the potential for a sharp increase in trade “mainly because of the changing demand structure and comparative advantages of both the economies in complementary sectors in recent years.”
Korea specialized “in a few, high value-added manufacturing products,” said the paper while “India’s exports have been more diversified.” The study, by Pravakar Sahoo, Durgesh Kumar Rai and Rajiv Kumar, suggested “areas where there is huge scope for increased investment and technological collaboration between the two countries.” Removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers, it said, would “give a major boost to bilateral trade and investment relations.”
Nearly two years later, in September.
2011, the Korean ambassador to India, Kim Jeong-keun, stressed the need to “work together to maintain peace and stability in the Asian region” while “consolidating cooperation in non-conventional security areas such as maritime security, counter-terrorism, shaping the contours of emerging Asian regional architecture.” Over the past five years, he said, India had begun looking seriously eastward. How about a more aggressive role for the Indian navy? While “the geopolitical situation is rapidly changing the East Asia region,” he said, “there were further scopes for cooperation in the field of maritime security.” As an added enticement, the ambassador said that South Korea wanted India to become a permanent member of an expanded United Nations Security Council.
A critical element in the “strategic partnership” undoubtedly is the India-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into force in January 2011. Under the agreement India has cut or gotten rid of tariffs on 85 percent of imports from Korea while Korea has done the same for 90 percent of imports from India. At the same time, most of Korea’s biggest companies are investing heavily in India. Most spectacularly, and perhaps controversially, POSCO, Pohang Iron and Steel, is investing US$12 billion in a steel plant in Orissa despite the impassioned pleas of local people forced to give up their homes. Indian authorities are totally committed to providing space for the plant, which represents by far India’s biggest foreign direct investment.
Visions of India as a growing market for Korean products and technology extend to virtually all areas of enterprise. Ambassador Kim believes “India’s strong software capabilities and Korea’s hardware manufacturing prowess are ‘complementary strengths’ of the two countries.” LG and Samsung between them account for between two fifths and three fifths of the market in electronic gimmicks and gadgets while Hyundai Motor, producing vehicles in Chennai, now accounts for 20 percent of the cars on Indian roads. Korean companies have been checking out the possibilities of manufacturing ships in West Bengal, of building roads and highways, oil pipelines and refineries as well as petrochemical plants. Not all the investment is from Korea into India. The other way around, some of India’s biggest companies, including Tata Motors, Novelis, and Mahindra have also invested in South Korea.
Ambassador Kim waxed euphoric about the potential for collaboration on energy projects, particularly in the expanding nuclear field. “Korea’s world class civil nuclear capabilities in nuclear power plant construction, management, maintenance and safety practices could be an area of potential cooperation,” he said. And “with cutting edge technology in wind power turbine and solar cell, Korea can help India develop its renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydro power.” Korea is eager to “partner with India in joint ventures, technical cooperation, R&D and co-production,” Kim concluded. “There is tremendous scope for cooperation in science and technology, particularly in areas such as nano-technology and biotechnology.”
The numbers bear out the hopes. From US$1 billion in bilateral trade in 1991, volume had grown to $21 billion in 2011 with a goal of $30 billion in 2014, thanks to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. “We had a landmark visit of President Lee Myung-bak to India in 2010,” said the Indian Ambassador to Korea, Vishnu Prakash, at a reception in Seoul on January 23 marking India’s 64th Republic Day. Incoming President Park Geun-hye, he was confident, also “sees India as a national partner of Korea.” Beneath the presidential level, he observed, “Hundreds of Korean companies are in India, and thousands of Indian engineers and scientists are working for Korean companies in India or in Korea.”
For these two very different democracies, on opposite sides of Asia, the future seems ever more bright. “We are in one of the most vibrant countries in the world,” said Prakash, “Relations between the two countries have been literally prosperous in recent years.”
Lee Jae-kap, deputy minister of employment and labor, was equally upbeat. “India, one ofthe oldest civilizations in the world, is also one of the most dynamic countries full of young people,” he said. “ India will definitely grow into one of the world’s major superpowers, along with the United States and China.” That would be thanks in part, no doubt, to the extraordinary relationship, military and commercial, between India and South Korea, so hugely different but so closely bound by convergent aims and concerns
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