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The re-election of Prime Minister Modi has created a new wave of hope and excitement among the Korean political, diplomatic and business elite. After Tagore and Gandhi, Modi is undoubtedly the most popular Indian statesman in South Korea today. Never before has an Indian political leader received as much appreciation for his work as Modi has today in South Korea. Bestowing the Seoul Peace Prize on him is a testimony of this appreciation. In his last term as Prime Minster, he visited Korea twice to push for an India-South Korea strategic partnership. In his second term, Modi is expected to take this push to new heights.


In recent years, most Indian leaders who visited Korea looked at it as primarily an economic partner and focused mainly on business aspects in developing the partnership. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed in 2009 was the outcome of this economic diplomacy. During those times, the strategic partnership was provided only lip service. Modi, understanding the role that India-South Korea strategic partnership could play in maintaining peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, upgraded the relationship to ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ during his most recent visit to Korea earlier this year.


South Korea and India have strong cultural bonds, connecting the two for over two millenniums. A common faith in an open society, democracy and a liberal international economic order is giving it further push in modern times. Modi, convinced that too much time has been wasted in empty diplomatic spins in the last few years, has decided to take concrete steps to add hard substance to this partnership in the arenas of defence, science and technology, trade and investment, foreign affairs, and people-to-people exchanges. It was no surprise that more than seven new agreements were signed during his brief visit to Seoul earlier this year. Never before has an Indian leader seen so much potential in this ever-growing partnership. The time for India-Korea partnership to play a bigger role in mutual development, prosperity and security has arrived.


As a result of Modi’s push, today India sees Korea as an indispensable partner in East Asia. For the first time India is showing greater appreciation of the measures taken by South Korea such as the ‘New Southern Policy’ to enhance cooperation with Southeast Asia and India and the “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” (NAPCI) to strengthen security cooperation among countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Both countries are now focused on finding complementarities between NAPCI and Act East Policy to achieve their shared strategic goals.


Bottlenecks in the Strategic Partnership


Despite the growing closeness between the two countries, everything is not going as planned. Trade is growing much slower than expected. The target of US$50 billion by 2030 is most probably going to be missed once again. Earlier in 2011, both sides had set the target of US$40 billion by 2015, but failed to achieve it. Despite the big promises to do everything in their power to achieve the new target, both sides are failing to take appropriate measures and trade is still hovering around US$22 billion.


The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was supposed to be the core institutional mechanism to build stronger economic ties, has been dysfunctional for the last four years. After dozens of meetings to fix the problems plaguing it, officials have failed to sign the deal. Making things worse, unlike their Korean counterparts in India, the Indian businessmen do not have any functional economic or business entities to protect and promote their interests. The Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ICCK), which was established more than eight years ago, is still struggling to get its due place and role. Today it is known more for its cultural activities that it organizes every year during the festival season(s) than for its business promotion initiatives. Forget about using its services; most Indians do not even know about its existence. It has a long way to go before it becomes a premier Indian national economic and business body in South Korea.


On the strategic cooperation front, things are no better. Mostly filled with empty political declarations and diplomatic spins, the gap between the strategic perspectives of the two countries is widening. Very rarely have India and South Korea agreed and worked towards common strategic issues facing the region. Issues such as maritime security, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, security of Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean, maritime terrorism, energy security, building new security institutional mechanisms, nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula and threats of nuclear war in the region have been largely sidelined.  


The much hyped defence cooperation is also losing steam. While India and South Korea have succeeded in finalizing some high-profile defence industry deals, some of them such as the Kyungnam minesweepers and Hyundai defence deals have failed to materialize. Also, very little progress has been achieved in defence policy alignment. For example, while India sees the new “Indo Pacific strategy” as an important part of its eastward engagement under its new “Act East Policy”, South Korea has refused to come in open support of this in its newly announced “New Southern Policy” and increasingly sees it as an anti-China alignment.  Furthermore, currently the whole process of defence cooperation is exceedingly being dominated by commission agents and defence contractors.


Many Things to Fix


Given the high confidence Koreans have in the leadership of Prime Minister Modi there are high hopes among Koreans that appropriate measures will be taken to remove the hurdles stopping the realization of the full potential of the partnership. An urgent need to set up a special independent commission to reassess the actual state of the India-Korea partnership that goes beyond political hypes and diplomatic spins is being felt. Officials who have been ignoring the failures and overspinning their success need to be admonished to not do it anymore.


There is also an urgent need for a new CEPA deal. Too much water has flowed through the Han River since CEPA stopped working. Perhaps constituting a special committee with appropriate powers and authority could do the trick. Furthermore, ICCK which is heavily tilted towards big corporations needs to be replaced with a strong, resourceful and economic body to protect the interests of all sections of the Indian business community. Due to the ongoing trade war between the USA and China, it is imperative to have a stronger and more resourceful economic body in Korea to secure India’s economic interests. The current lot is not up to such a challenge. Since small traders and small businessmen constitute the core of Indian economic activity in Korea, it will be better if the leadership of a new economic body is given to them.


To fix the problems with defence cooperation we must pay special attention and take measures to fend against the growing presence of defence contractors and commission agents. Currently, defence cooperation is tilted against any form of defence industrial cooperation.  In recent years, more progress has been made in buying weapons from Korea than other aspects of military and defence cooperation. In coming years India is planning to buy weapon systems worth billions of dollars from Korea. No such high profile deals in other areas of defence cooperation are presently in sight. It needs to be balanced with other aspects of cooperation, such as education and training, joint research, military personnel exchanges and defence policy alignment among others.


Despite all the push for ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ by Modi and the growing importance of East Asia in India’s security strategy, the Indian foreign establishment does not seem to fully comprehend the strategic importance of Korea. It seems like very few officials understand what kind of role Korea would play in the ongoing power shift in the region. Thus, Korea has failed to get its due attention from the foreign policy establishment beyond lip service. India is still sending its best officers to China, European countries or the USA. It is high time India starts taking East Asia seriously and deploys its best diplomatic resources to fill the growing gap between the wishes of our political leaders and the actual initiatives taken by diplomats and others on the ground. Slowly but surely Korea is slipping away to other side i.e., to China due to lack of initiatives on the ground by our diplomats.


Last but not the least, in spite of the growing ties between two countries there is still a large percentage of Koreans who fail to differentiate between India and Indonesia. The Indian Cultural Centre, which was set up more than 10 years ago has failed to reach out to common Koreans and introduce India with proper perspectives. Social and economic discrimination against Indians is still a regular occurrence because of the lack of basic knowledge among common Koreans about the rich Indian culture. Presently, the cultural centre has been merely reduced to teaching two or three regional dances. The bigger picture has been completely lost. It is imperative the Indian Cultural Centre be provided with more resources and manpower in order to focus on spreading the diverse and rich Indian culture. The importance of cultural exchanges in deepening economic and strategic ties needs to be internalised by all.


The re-election of Modi has provided a golden opportunity to take India–Korea relations to new heights. Let us not leave any stone upturned to make it happen.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.