South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited in India for a four-day trip from 8 to 11 July 2018, and both the countries resolved to add more substance to their partnership. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Moon Jae-in re-emphasised the natural partnership in which mutual complementarities have been key in bringing both countries close to each other in the last three decades. India and South Korea have decided to widen and deepen their relations and give it a big top-down push. In fact, business and people-to-people exchanges have incrementally grown between the two countries. However, it has not been sufficient to fully realise the vast potential of the India-South Korea partnership. Special and sustained top-level has allegedly been missing. The leadership of both countries have been rather occupied in their neighborhoods as well as with their relationships with the big powers. The space to give more attention to each other has been limited despite the intention to do so.
President Moon has made a serious attempt to overcome this limitation. After assuming office in May 2017, he sent his special envoys to India and Southeast Asian countries, and also sent four other envoys to the US, China, Japan and Russia. It was the first time a South Korean president gave an important place to India through the act of sending a special envoy. Subsequently, Moon announced his New Southern Policy, which sought to increase South Korea’s exchanges with India and Southeast Asian countries in all possible fields. During his visit to India, Moon categorically expressed his resolve to enhance India-South Korea relations to the same levels that South Koreas shares with the ‘big-four’ countries: the US, China, Japan and Russia. A four-day visit to India (which is the longest by any Indian or South Korean top leader to each other’s country so far) is noteworthy because the South Korean leader has been extremely busy with peninsular politics over the past few months.
India must reciprocate South Korea’s intent and give more space to South Korea in its foreign policy. India does include South Korea as an important partner in its Act East Policy, but the economic and strategic content of the New Delhi-Seoul relationship has not increased to meet expectations. In 2011, bilateral trade between India and South Korea was around US$ 20 billion and it remained same in 2017, apart from a period of decline and recovery. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries, which came into force in 2010, has not been able to push economic exchanges between the two countries forward. Both countries have been reviewing CEPA since it was reached during Narendra Modi’s May 2015 visit to Seoul, but progress appears to be taking a long time.
On political and security issues, too, it is being said that the Strategic Partnership Agreement (2010) or the Special Strategic Partnership (2015) between India and South Korea are limited in their content. Neither country has been able to bring definite agenda items to the table, barring a few statements talking about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, maritime and cyber security, and joint defence production plans. South Korea is one of three countries India has a Special Strategic Partnership with – the others are Japan and Russia – but the depth of strategic understanding is less than that in its other two partnerships.
Through Moon’s visit, South Korea has expressed a strong will to transform its approach towards India, and there are high expectations that India will also respond resolutely, and that both countries can significantly improve their relations in the near future. More importantly, if more people-to-people contact and cultural exchanges are promoted, the two countries would be able to articulate their economic complementarities and common strategic objectives in regional politics more comprehensively.
In the economic sphere, India and South Korea’s core competencies are different, and they are each positioned to gain tremendous benefits through their exchanges. South Korea in rich in capital and technology, and India has a huge market, and human and natural resources. Rather than expecting short-term reciprocity that might be beneficial to one party, they should keep their eyes on the long-term win-win framework.
India and South Korea also have similar approaches to North Korea and Pakistan and their destabilising behaviour in the East and South Asian regions, respectively. On the issue of China’s rise, too, both New Delhi and Seoul would like to maintain a more ambivalent position; one that is more nuanced than the US and Japanese approaches. India and South Korea could also contribute more constructively to the process of establishing an open and multipolar Asia in which inter-state relations are rules and norms-based, and where regional institutions to deliberate and coordinate divergent national interests are given more prominence. It is important to note that both countries need each other and both Modi and Moon are popular in their respective countries. If the two countries decide to pay more attention to each other, bilateral relations are poised to take a huge leap in a short-span of time.