Dr Markandey Rai
Look forward to bolster India South Korea relationship and meet you soon,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, congratulating the new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on his presidential inauguration on May 10.
This was not mere rhetoric. One week before the event, his transition committee announced 110 national tasks. Among them, 18 tasks were specifically aimed at promoting South Korea as “a global pivotal state” under three categories of inter-Korean relations, diplomacy, and defense.
Always, the tasks that a new government in South Korea puts forward show both continuities and changes. In terms of promoting a “global pivotal state,” the Yoon Government is advocating for revitalisation of South Korea’s relationship with the Quad members—the US, Japan, India, and Australia.
Bilateral relations between the two countries have made great strides in recent years and have become truly multidimensional, spurred by a significant convergence of interests, mutual goodwill, and high-level exchanges.
Yoon Suk-yeol’s criticism of China by calling for “doing away with South Korea’s submissive diplomacy toward China” and strong belief in a robust democracy, independent of outside powers, have the potential to further improve relations with New Delhi.
Both the nations are connected with history. According to ‘Samguk Yusa’ 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 Heo Hwang-ok in the year 48 AD. Buddhism made the relationship strong and natural.
After India’s opening of the economy in 1991, Korean companies seized the opportunity with Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, Hanwha, Kia, SK, Lotte, and more becoming Indianised from the core. Indian companies like Mahindra and Mahindra, Tata Motors, and banks like State Bank of India and Bank of Baroda have large investments in South Korea. Bilateral trade has crossed around $21 billion dollars. So, happenings in Korea are important to India and vice versa.
For the major part of its history, South Korea has kept its diplomacy focused predominately on major powers around the Korean peninsula: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. However, as US-China frictions intensify, South Korea is increasingly concerned about being entangled in great power competition. This has been especially true since 2017 when China launched a campaign of economic coercion in retaliation for Seoul’s decision to allow the deployment of a US missile system in South Korea.
The direction of India-South Korea engagement began shifting after President Moon assumed office in 2017. His New South Policy (NSP) aimed at elevating Korea’s strategic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with India to bring relations on par with Korea’s four major diplomatic partners: the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.
But the new President is a conservative, who wants to give a more pro-US and anti-China twist to South Korea’s strategic approach.
Needless to say, economics has been the principal driver of South Korea’s changed outlook. Increasingly, Seoul’s political elite are coming to view India and the ASEAN countries as new economic partners. They want to reduce their over-dependence on traditional trade allies like China and the United States.
Finally, a democratic South Korea prefers India as a natural partner for development and growth due to its democratic political landscape and open market economy.
India needs a stable prosperous democratic South Korea and wants North Korea to stop nuclear brinkmanship and get back to the negotiating table to resolve the issues with South Korea.
An independent South Korea, not crumbling under global superpowers’ pressure, is good for India. A free market and strong democracy can bring South Korea closer to India. However, militarisation in East Asia from China to Japan, and the assertiveness of Russia have to be watched.
For now, India needs Korean hardware for Indian software, and cooperation on defence, automobile semiconductors, battery joint production, cutting-edge technology, supply chain, logistics, 6G-research, and people-to-people contact. If South Korea under the new President can respond to this favorably, it will be a win-win situation for both India and Korea.
SIGNS OF CLOSING UP TO QUAD
Will the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) be expanded by adding South Korea as another member to the existing group consisting of four countries—the US, India, Australia, and Japan?
The question is doing round in diplomatic circles in New Delhi, Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra following the new South Korean President’s expression of willingness to join the Quad framework.
This signaled a change in Seoul’s position on balanced ties with China and the US because of the changing global order resulting from the Ukraine conflict and Beijing’s growing aggression in various geographies including the areas where South Korea’s sovereignty is being jeopardized.
The previous South Korean President Moon Jae-in was more circumspect about joining the Quad, whose undeclared aim is to counter China’s growing influence in the maritime space, technological advancement, and infrastructure building in developing countries.
The expansion of the Quad is not on the formal agenda at the forthcoming Quad summit in Tokyo but it will be informally discussed among its members. It will also figure dominantly during a scheduled meeting between US President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart just hours ahead of the Summit.
Sources said Japanese Premier Fumio Kishida wants an intensive association of Seoul with the forum to counter China. A South Korean delegation has already reached out to Kishida on various strategic issues including this one.
Even if South Korea is not given a green signal for joining the group, there could be some possibility of allowing Seoul to be in a close association with the Quad in different frameworks and endeavors, South Korea’s approach to the Quad has been similar to its approach to the free-and-open Indo-Pacific narrative: Work with partners practically, while avoiding open endorsement of their regional strategies.
Though South Korea is not a member of the Quad, it was a part of the Quad Plus meetings in March 2020, where it participated in talks on the pandemic response.