Boosting ties with Seoul

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to South Korea saw the two sides upgrade their bilateral relationship to a ‘special strategic partnership.’ This is a significant development as it signals the rising importance that Delhi and Seoul accord each other in their defence and security planning and preparedness. India is the only country outside South Korea’s neighbourhood with whom Seoul maintains a security dialogue. Agreements signed during Modi’s visit will strengthen interaction between the National Security Councils and armed forces of the two countries. Bilateral naval cooperation, which is already growing – the two navies cooperate in anti-piracy operations near the Gulf of Aden – is expected to provide the backbone for the deepening defence ties, as the two countries share an interest in keeping the Indian Ocean’s shipping lanes safe. Besides, India is drawing on South Korea’s formidable naval ship-building expertise. Hyundai Heavy Industries and Hindustan Shipyard will jointly manufacture warships in India. Seoul has also pledged investment of $10 billion dollars in infrastructure projects such as smart cities, railways etc. It has also promised to support India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.

South Korea was among the first countries to enter Indian markets when the Indian economy began liberalising in 1991. South Korean brands and products became popular here thereafter. However, the relationship failed to realise its full potential and after some initial enthusiasm, South Korean interest in investing in India waned for several reasons and trade has declined in recent years. India must ensure that Seoul’s enthusiasm to ‘Make in India’ that was evident during Modi’s visit does not fizzle out.

The China factor figures in a big way in India-South Korean relations. In fact, Indian strategic analysts often push for more robust relations with Seoul as a way to counter China’s burgeoning ties with India’s neighbours. This is a narrow approach that India is unlikely to benefit from. Delhi must deepen ties with Seoul for the value that this bilateral bond brings India. After all, South Korea has technical and other expertise that can benefit India. India and South Korea must bond over Buddhism. It was from India that Buddhism travelled to South Korea over a millennium ago. This is a soft power resource that India must tap as it seeks to ‘act East’ more vigorously. A shared cultural heritage will improve people-to-people relations between the two countries and serve to enhance India’s image and influence there. Importantly, this will not ruffle feathers in Beijing as it is a resource that India can deploy vis-à-vis China as well.

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