Strategic balance in East Asia is changing. In this new strategic equilibrium Korea and India are being forced to evolve new policy alternatives to protect their national interests. Fundamental questions are bothering both countries. How do they to keep peace and stability during this transition period in a region full of historical animosities and boundary, ethnic and economic disputes? How best can two middle powers like India and Korea serve, protect, and promote their national interests?
India and Korea, two of the most successful democracies in Asia, are natural partners. India and Korea have lot to gain if they work together. Today, both are significant middle powers with strong economies and are already playing an established role in e international institutions. Both as democracies have a strong interests in the rule of international law establishing regional order. Their joining of hands presents a new paradigm shift in international relations: two new rising Asian powers building their collaborative identity, and crafting a new role for themselves to protect and promote their own vision, instead of blindly following the polices of traditional super powers. Together they have the potential to forge a third way, not only for themselves but all other fellow smaller countries facing the same choice in the region.
It is becoming abundantly cleaR in this fast interconnected Asia, any disruption of hostilities anywhere in the region will have adverse impact all over Asia and beyond. Given the fact that Korea, as the 9th largest trading nation, is strongly connected to the world economy, any war (nuclear or non-nuclear) on the Korean peninsula could have a devastating effect not only on the Korean economy, but also on Indian and Asian and world economies at large. Peace on the Korean peninsula is of paramount importance for continued prosperity of the region. So far, India’s involvement in peace building there has been very minimal. Given the changing strategic imperatives on the regional stage, there is room for India’ to play a bigger role in peace building and the nuclear non – proliferation process here.
Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar's maiden visit to Korea last month was a great opportunity to explore the Korean model of indigenization of the defense industry which India is also trying to follow with its own program under the new Indian prime minister's “make in India” initiative. According to a rough estimate, India is expected to procure arms worth US$230 billion in next ten years under its defense modernization programs. Given the advance stage of indigenization of the Korean defense industry, Korean companies are in a very advantageous position for setting up shop in India and producing defense related equipment for the Indian armed forces.
Already some promising signs are emerging in defense cooperation. The Indian navy is planning to procure six new minesweepers. The Korean minesweeper, considered to be one of the best in its class, is expected to be built at the Goa Shipyard with possible assistance from Korea. Recently some renowned Korean firms have also joined in multiple ventures adding new artillery guns for the Indian army. To take this relationship to next level, both sides are said to be keen on a trilateral engagement with USA similar to what India has with Japan. Possibilities of increasing the exchanges of personnel and more joint exercises are being discussed.
However, for India and Korea to take their defense partnership to its fullest potential, it is imperative that they realign their strategic priorities and objectives in accordance with each other’s strategic needs. It is only after this that they will be able to build requited confidence and the trust level necessary for any kind of defense cooperation. Only economic logic can take the relationship thus far.
For example despite the rhetoric-heavy pitch, India has taken minimal positions on important issues facing Korea, i.e. Korean unification and nuclear proliferation on Korean peninsula. India is an important and influential country in Asia. Impressions though in Korea and East Asia is that India is not doing enough to promote Korean unification and merely doing lip service to a cause which is of paramount importance to the Korean people. India needs to throw its full weight behind Korean unification, nuclear non- proliferation, and conflict resolution on Korean peninsula, Without a doubt a united, nuclear weapon free, prosperous, and powerful Korea, that is able to defend its way of life on the eastern planks of China is in India’s best interest.
However, it must be understood by Indian policy makers that India will not look attractive to Korean policy makers, regardless the economic incentives offered to Korean companies to invest in India, unless India also offers value-added solutions to the problems on the Korean peninsula and wider northeastern region. Any attempt to go for economic cooperation without strategic cooperation on the security front is bound to fail. It must be remembered that defense cooperation and strategic alignment always go side by side. For example, it was only after Russia helped India fight foreign aggression in 1971 that India-Russia friendship started to flourish and Russia became the largest supplier of weapons to India. In more recent times, Israel started selling its high tech weapons to India only when both sides found strategic convergence in fighting terrorism in the region. So will be the case for India- Korea defense cooperation.
The future of the India-Korea strategic partnership will depend on how both countries continue to factor in each other strengths and weaknesses in their respective strategic calculations to meet their ever changing strategic needs. Currently, the two countries together face a fresh dynamism to bilateral relations like never before. Indian Prime MinisterNarendra Modi’s visit to Seoul offers a great opportunity to realign their respective priorities and construct a new vision for future for India- Korea ties.
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