Modi Wave in Seoul: A New Phase of South Korea-India Relations|
Dr. Jojin. V. John
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a two day state visit to South Korea from May 18-19. Seoul is the final destination of Modi’s three country visit, after China and Mongolia. While in South Korea Modi met with President Park Geun-hye and oversaw the signing of a range of agreements between the two countries. The main focus of Mr. Modi’s visit is to promote the new image of India under his leadership in attracting Korean investment in his pet projects at home; Swatch Bharat Abhiyan, 100 Smart Cities, Digital India and Make in India.
South Korea is not an unknown place for Modi. He visited in 2007 when he was the Chief Minister of the Indian state Gujarat and since then developed a strong connection with the expansion of Korean business in Gujarat. The current visit also coincides with the first anniversary Modi’s inauguration as Prime Minister. Over the past year, Modi has voraciously pursued his agenda of economic development, witnessing a sea change in policy focusing on creating a favorable environment for business and attracting investment in India. Modi’s “Make In India” project stands out, with its goal of transforming India into world class manufacturing hub. In that ambitious project, South Korea occupies a special place with its rich experience as global manufacturing powerhouse and the strong track record of South Korean companies in India. In Modi’s own words, “there can be no better partner than South Korea for the ‘Make in India’ initiative.., leveraging the manufacturing strength of South Korea with India’s young human resource base”.
After four decades of minimal interaction during the Cold War period, South Korea-India relations gained momentum with the opening up of the Indian economy in the early 1990s. The point of departure was Prime Minister Narasimha Rao‘s visit to South Korea in 1993. Rao invited South Korean companies to do business in India. Today companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai are household names and India has become a hub for their global strategies.
During the last decade, the scope of bilateral relations has expanded beyond commerce to include science and technology, defense, security, culture etc. The comprehensive nature of bilateral relations and the strategic significance was mutually recognized in the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2010. Of course, economic considerations continue to dominate the bilateral agenda during Modi’s current visit, especially given his priority for foreign relations in harnessing India’s economic development. But other sectors of strategic partnership such as defense, security both traditional and non-traditional, science and technology are nevertheless important. The recent visits of India’s Foreign Minister and Defense Minister to Seoul in setting up the stage for Prime Ministers visiting underline the comprehensive nature of bilateral relations.
Modi‘s visit will clearly set a stage for imparting further momentum to the bilateral strategic partnership. The definition of strategic partnership in the 21st century is very critical in setting the trajectory for India-Korea relations and has to be clearly distinguished from the Cold War type alliance partnership. India-Korea strategic partnership should be special but not exclusive, it should not call on each other to choose sides but it must enable the countries to work together on issues that are of mutual interest in a coherent and coordinated fashion. On the other hand it should provide enough flexibility for both countries to pursue their interests with other partners and also not let the issues of contention spoiling the general framework of the partnership.
The returns of the great power politics in international relations, manifesting the geopolitical rivalry between US and China in the recent years, has colored the narrative of South Korea-India relations. This is a dangerous trend that could lead to misinterpretation of each other’s policies and can hamper cooperation in other sectors. The narrative of great power competition is more sensitive to Seoul than Delhi, given Korea’s painful historical experience as a victim of great power rivalry.
South Korea cannot afford to be dragged into yet another great power competition, nor can afford choose between the US or China. The dominance of great power narrative will also undermine South Korea’s hard earned middle power status. Recent narratives of India’s growing relations with US and Japan has raised some concern in the minds of strategic analysts in Seoul and tried to read it along with the dominant narrative of India-China geopolitical competition, jumping in to conclusions that India is aligning with Western countries in containing China. This is far from reality. India is equally concerned about the great power-dominant international order.
It is in this context that the positive images of Modi’s China visit and the narratives of progressive India-China relations not only create a positive environment for his South Korea visit but also clear the ambiguity around India’s relations with great powers. On global affairs India and South Korea have much at stake in avoiding great power rivalry turning in to military conflicts, thus both countries have significant incentives to work together in creating an open and inclusive international order based on the principles of multilateralism.
Dr. Jojin V. John is a Visiting Fellow, The Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.
This article was published in Hankyoreh