India-South Korea Relations: Potential for deeper strategic engagements

South Korean President Moon Jae-In visits India from July 8 to 11. The focus of his visit is said to economic domain. But he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also be discussing bilateral, regional and global issues. Prime Minister Modi had visited South Korea in May 2015. During his visit India and South Korea entered into an agreement to upgrade the bilateral relations to ‘Special Strategic Partnership’.

Despite the Special Strategic Partnership there remains a lot of scope for expansion of bilateral relations in the strategic sphere. India-South Korea relations are still dominated by economic domain. But geopolitical transitions in the Korean Peninsula and emergence of the concept of Indo-Pacific necessitate that India and South Korea focus more on the strategic aspect of their bilateral relations. Convergence on strategic aspect would benefit both India and South Korea since both can play an active part in shaping the order instead of merely being a part of an order shaped by other powers. The propagation of a bi-polar order in the Indo-Pacific and other regions by the United States (US) as a means to contain its rivals, mainly China, only increases the possibility of conflict. Opposition to sharp polarization in regional and global orders is a vision that both India and South Korea share. This can be observed in each of the above mentioned two factors.

Korean Peninsula

Korean Peninsula has been one of the most unstable regions in recent times. The intense rivalry between the US and North Korea had led the region on the brink of conflict. The crisis in Korean Peninsula was essentially presented as a conflict between two poles by the US. The US-North Korea rivalry was only a sub-set of the US positioning itself against China in the region. But South Korea, along with China, initiated engagement and dialogue with North Korea. These steps facilitated a summit between the US and North Korea and also helped diffuse tensions to some extent in the Korean Peninsula. But South Korea’s role also substantiated its view against polarization. India on its part engaged with North Korea in April when Minister of State for External Affairs General (Retd.) V.K. Singh visited North Korea. India’s engagement with North Korea during the time of crisis was a carefully designed outreach. As a part of Act East Policy India must further increase its outreach to Korean Peninsula for its own strategic interests and also to provide an alternative to bi-polarization in the region.

Indo-Pacific Region

The concept of Indo-Pacific as a geographic and strategic entity has been the principal initiative by the US in its propagation of bi-polar vision. China’s economic and strategic expansion across the region is the principal reason behind the construct of Indo-Pacific. In this arrangement the US views India’s role as important primarily to counter China. India-China relations have not always been cordial on account of two factors – territorial disputes between both the countries and China’s attempts towards strategic encirclement of India. But despite these irritants India has favoured constructive engagement with China as a means to resolve disputes.

In June Prime Minister Modi delivered the keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore. In his speech Modi reiterated India’s vision of inclusiveness. While India favours alliances, it insists on alliances not to be directed against a single country. India endorses the view of free and open Indo-Pacific. India also stresses on respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of individual nations. India recognizes that regional and extra regional powers have stakes in the region. India’s vision tries to strike balance between inclusiveness and deterrence to protect individual interests. South Korea on the other hand has reservations about being a part of Indo-Pacific order.

India’s view of inclusiveness and South Korea’s reservations converge on the point that such polarized alliances can disturb their relations with China. Both India and South Korea are against such steps. As far as deterrence is concerned India is a part of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as The Quad) along with the US, Japan and Australia. As deterrent measures India advocates multi-polar order to maintain stability in the region. But for multi-polarity India must increase its bilateral and multilateral strategic engagements with middle powers such as South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia in addition to Japan and Australia. Such arrangements would act as a deterrent against two possible formations – uni-polar order that could result from China’s assertive activities and bi-polar order as imagined by the US as a counter measure to China. South Korea can be a valuable partner to India in initiating a multi-polar order in the Indo-Pacific. Shared visions and shared concerns of both the countries with respect to the shape that regional order is taking make it imperative for both the countries to participate in the Indo-Pacific.

Since the establishment of formal ties in 1973 India-South Korea relations have progressed well in economic and cultural fields. It is now necessary to enhance strategic engagements as a response to shifts in geopolitical trends in the world and to protect own strategic interests.

Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani is an Independent Researcher and Columnist based in Vadodara, India follow on twitter @NiranjanMarjani