Author : Abhijit Singh

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 07, 2020
India-South Korea strategic relations: Shared imperatives, common goals


In recent years, India-South Korea relations have undergone a significant transformation. There has been a marked upturn in New Delhi’s interactions with Seoul ever since President Moon Jae-in unveiled his “New Southern Policy” (NSP) in November 2017.<1> The new policy is part of the larger, overarching Northeast Asia-plus Committee plan, whose two other components are the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Platform (NAPCP) and the New Northern Policy (NNP), intended at boosting cooperation with North Korea and Russia respectively. The NSP is aimed at elevating Korea’s strategic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with India to bring relations on par with Korea’s four major diplomatic partners: the United States, China, Japan and Russia.<2> The policy places Southeast Asia and India at the centre of Korea’s foreign policy agenda, so far dominated by the Korean Peninsula and the role of these four major powers. The direction of India-South Korea engagement began shifting after President Moon assumed office in 2017. The President’s desire for a different kind of relationship with ASEAN and India gave an impetus to high-level interactions, with many official delegations visiting New Delhi, a push by Seoul to upgrade political and security engagement.<3> The President’s four-day visit to India in July 2018 was by itself the longest by any leader of the two countries, signaling a crucial shift in Seoul’s diplomatic approach.<4> Unveiling a raft of proposals to invigorate the bilateral with India, the President made it clear that deepening Seoul’s strategic partnership with New Delhi was a priority for his government. Needless to say, economics has been the principal driver of South Korea’s changed outlook. Increasingly, Seoul’s political elite are coming to view India and the ASEAN countries as new economic partners, driven by their need to reduce over-dependence on traditional trade allies like China and the United States.<5>But Seoul’s new robust outreach is also driven by its desire to endorse the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct by aligning with regional states. This ties in well with India's own approach that recognises the Indo-Pacific as a region of strategic interest. The fact that India has no sensitive issues with South Korea helps the cause of strategic cooperation between the two states. In the words of Trade Minister Kim Hyun-Chong: “There is little risk of economic cooperation with India wavering due to external factors.”<6> Unlike China, which created serious problems for South Korea over the THAAD issue,<7> India does not carry with it unknown variables. New Delhi, too, has been keen to strengthen bilateral ties with South Korea. India sees the ROK as an indispensable partner in its ‘Act-East’ strategy, with the potential to contribute to peace, stability and security in the Asia Pacific Region.<8> Consequently, Indian policymakers have placed greater emphasis on security ties with South Korea. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Seoul in February 2019 witnessed a push towards a special strategic partnership, yielding seven agreements for enhanced cooperation in key areas, including infrastructure development, media, and start-ups, as well as in combating trans-border and international crime.<9>In a meeting with President Moon on the sidelines of the G-20 summit at Busan in June 2019, Mr. Modi reaffirmed the growing convergences between South Korea’s New Southern Policy and India’s Act East Policy, central to which is the pursuit of a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific order.<10> Recalling President Moon’s visit to India in 2018, PM Modi remarked that “the coordination of Indian and South Korean approaches in the region is deepening and strengthening the Special Strategic Partnership.”<11>  From an Indian perspective, the essential premise of a strengthened India-ROK partnership is a shared vision of progress in Asia, and a roadmap aimed at people, peace, prosperity and strategic balance. 

A Historical Overview

To assess the conditions that have led to a deepening of the India-South Korea security cooperation, studying past developments may prove useful. It was in May 2007 that Indian and South Korean defence ministers held their first-ever consultations. At the time, Indian officials noted that “the military field needed to keep up with the development of the two sides’ economic cooperation.”<12> In January 2010, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh upgraded ties to a “strategic partnership” that included an enhanced focus on political and security cooperation. Among the issues discussed was an agreement for an annual security dialogue between the two countries and cooperation in the joint development of defence technologies. There was also recognition of the potential for enhanced cooperation in terms of India’s role as a provider of maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.<13> This also brought up the possibility of greater defence trade between India and South Korea, which was limited prior to 2005. The South Korean defence industry had been virtually locked out of the Indian arms market throughout the Cold War and immediately thereafter. After 2005, defence industry cooperation between India and South Korea picked up some degree of momentum with projects like the joint development of self-propelled artillery and mine-countermeasure vessels. In March 2007, India and South Korea also began talks on the development and purchase by India of frigates, armored vehicles, and military trucks. These talks would fail to come to fruition, but South Korea remained hopeful of being able to sell military equipment and platforms to India.<14> Even so, direct cooperation between Indian and South Korean maritime forces remained limited. India proceeded cautiously on this front, beginning with a memorandum of understanding relating to Indian and South Korean coast guards signed in March 2005. This led to joint coast guard exercises in July 2006, which coincided with nearby India-US bilateral naval exercises.<15>India and South Korea subsequently agreed to hold joint naval exercises and regular military consultations. In the following years, India and ROK cooperated regularly in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. With almost 99 percent of its international trade conducted by sea, South Korea has been an eager participant in measures to secure Indian Ocean SLOCs. Yet Seoul seemed reluctant to partner with India in any initiative in South Asia that challenged other regional powers. Today, India and South Korea seem more assured about their maritime and strategic ties. Both sides have taken steps towards operationalising joint plans that better reflect shared interests in their maritime commons. Political observers say the common experiences of the two nations have created grounds for greater synergy in military cooperation. Both nations share a history of partition, and confrontation with Pakistan and North Korea, respectively, as well as an uneasy relationship with China. Importantly, while both sides have sought to tackle their principal adversary through coercive diplomacy, they have adopted similar approaches to dealing with China.<16> New Delhi and Seoul have sought to simultaneously accommodate and balance rising Chinese power–expanding economic ties with Beijing while deepening their strategic relationship with the United States, in an attempt contain growing Chinese presence in their neighbourhood. 

India-South Korea, Seoul, NSP, NAPCP, ASEAN, proposals, raft, THAAD, Act East, SLOCs, convergence, FOIP, EEZ, Vietnam, Philipinnes, Rule of Law, connectivity, conflict, IFC, EOI, geopolitical crisis, partnership

Towards a Strategic Partnership

Recent months have revealed the contours of a truly strategic bilateral India-ROK relationship. Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to South Korea in August 2019 showed greater intent on the part of New Delhi to strengthen military ties.<17>In his meeting with ROK defence minister, Jeong Kyeong-doo, Mr. Singh made a pitch for a deepened partnership in the defence and security sectors. A comprehensive review of the defence relations followed, resulting in the signing of two far-reaching agreements: one to extend logistical support to each other’s navies, and a second one to deepen defence educational exchanges. The agreement on naval logistics sharing is a particularly significant one, as it is an arrangement that India presently shares only with the US and France.<18> In New Delhi, there is an expectation that the military logistics agreement with South Korea will enhance India’s strategic reach and naval presence in the Pacific. The Indian navy is often seen as lacking the maritime legs for sustained operations in the Pacific. A partnership with South Korea will help in creating the reach in a theatre of growing strategic importance for India. New Delhi and Seoul are also working on a plan to strengthen bilateral defence industry collaboration, with the former keen to find an alternate source for Chinese systems and components in the broad defence electronics sector.<19> A partnership with South Korea could help in the development of indigenous capability to fill the vital technology gap. According to a statement by India’s defence ministry, at a meeting of the CEOs of Korean and Indian defence industries in Seoul, Rajnath Singh listed a number of possible areas for cooperation including land systems, aero systems, naval systems, R&D co-operation and collaboration in testing, certification, and quality assurance.<20> The high-end and sophisticated nature of the South Korean defence electronic capabilities makes Seoul an indispensable defence partner. Other initiatives are equally significant. According to media reports, the Indian defence minister has also invited the Korean defence industry to participate in DefExpo 2020 to be held in Lucknow in February 2020.<21> A joint task force will identify military systems and hardware that can be produced in India through the participation of Korean defence industries, which will be useful in avoiding the import costs of these systems. In November 2019, the Indian Army inducted the K9 VAJRA-T 155mm/ 52, a tracked self-propelled howitzer, which has its roots in the K9 Thunder, the mainstay of the South Korean Army.<22>South Korean defence industry, Samsung-Techwin, and India’s Larsen & Toubro have entered into an agreement for the sale of 100 howitzers in May 2017. Efforts are underway to strengthen bilateral collaboration to develop remote control systems in India’s defence sector.<23>

An Indo-Pacific Convergence

The most interesting aspect of the growing proximity between India and South Korea is the Indo-Pacific focus, and the increased accent on a maritime convergence in the region. South Korea’s growing support for a rules-based and inclusive regional architecture is aimed at addressing what South Korean diplomats and officials have described as the difficulty in managing the pulls and pressures from competing initiatives from the US and China. Indeed, as a treaty ally of the US, with China as its biggest trading partner, Seoul increasingly faces problems in managing its relations with these important associates. South Korea is displaying an increased desire for close interactions with regional partners like India on key strategic issues. Even so, the Indo-Pacific presents a dilemma for both India and South Korea. This is because the US, through its ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy, has adopted a confrontational stance vis-a-vis China. The US strategy focuses excessively on rules of behaviour in the maritime domain, emphasising China’s infringement of norms in the South China Sea. Trump administration officials also lay inordinate stress on power competition with rivals, and Washington’s need to dominate its presumed adversaries.<24> As many in Washington see it, there is an inherent asymmetry in maritime-Southeast Asia – which it believes lies at the heart of the construct – a power imbalance driven by China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and Western Pacific. US officials view China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea as a violation of international law amounting to “intimidation and coercion”. American experts also deem problematic Beijing’s deployment of big coast Guard Shipships and survey vessels in the EEZs of Vietnam and the Philippines, and the installation of military hardware on islands under Chinese control. In contrast, the Indian version of the Indo-Pacific is more conciliatory, emphasising stakeholdership and inclusion. For India’s strategic elite, the concept goes beyond political and strategic considerations to also include economic, cultural and historical elements, each underscoring the imperative for pan-regional participation and multilateral cooperation. The clearest articulation of India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific came at the 2018 Shangri La dialogue where Prime Minister Modi comprehensively expounded on the five basic principles that undergird India’s strategic appreciation of the Indo-Pacific construct. <25> (a) Inclusiveness: India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. It is not a grouping that seeks to dominate, the Prime Minister said, and by no means directed against any country. Mr Modi spoke of India’s deepening ties with Indo-Pacific powers, particularly the United States, Russia, Singapore and Japan. He also stressed the need for greater trust and confidence in the India-China relationship, stressing that both sides need to put their differences aside and work with each other. (b) Regional Powers as Anchors of Stability: The need for regional powers to take greater responsibility in matters of maritime security, and serve as anchors of stability in Asia. If the Indo-Pacific is one integrated space, the responsibility for keeping it together rests equally on countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and most importantly the ASEAN bloc, which India regards as a lynchpin of the Indo-Pacific. (c) Connectivity: An issue that lies at the heart of Asia’s development. Connectivity is vital for more reasons than just the enhancement of trade and prosperity. Beyond physical infrastructure, it also unites a region, “building bridges of trust” of the region. Connectivity is more than material; it has a metaphysical quality as it can unite countries in a region. (d) Rule of Law: For any of our collective initiatives in the Indo-Pacific to come to fruition, as Mr. Modi observed, all sides need to adhere to some basic rules. These are: respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability. The rules-based order must also apply to interactions in the global commons (in terms of freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, equal access, and peaceful settlement of disputes). Trans-national economic initiatives should be empowering for other nations and not place them under impossible debt burden. (e) Strategic Cooperation, not conflict: The Indo-Pacific takes us back to the era of great power rivalries. What we need is an Asia of cooperation, not one of conflict. There is a need to manage differences and forge partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests.

India-South Korea, Seoul, NSP, NAPCP, ASEAN, proposals, raft, THAAD, Act East, SLOCs, convergence, FOIP, EEZ, Vietnam, Philipinnes, Rule of Law, connectivity, conflict, IFC, EOI, geopolitical crisis, partnership

Maritime Cooperation 

Since the early 2000s, India and South Korea have cooperated in search-and-rescue and anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. South Korea, like Japan, remains concerned with India’s ability to provide maritime security in vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean Region, including through the Strait of Malacca. New Delhi has welcomed South Korea’s recognition of India’s dominant security role, and is seeking to promote closer naval ties with the latter. India, however, has been reluctant to play a maritime role in Northeast Asia. While supporting measures for the establishment of a strong and unified Korea, Delhi has desisted from playing a more direct role in the Korean Peninsula. In the past, political observers have called India a legitimate dialogue partner in any future settlement with North Korea; the South Korean government has even requested that India use its “special status” with the two Koreas to support its position in the Six-Party Talks, playing an honest broker role between South Korea and North Korea as it did during the Korean War.<26> During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Seoul in May 2015, then President Park Geun-hye evinced interest in an Indian role in the ROK’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI).<27>Despite efforts to find complementarities between NAPCI and Act East Policy, Delhi, however, has displayed no desire to become involved in Northeast Asian security issues, whether on the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait. President Moon’s New Southern Policy reveals that there might be other areas concerning maritime security where the ROK might be willing to make common cause with India. These include shipbuilding (where the two nations already have an MoU in place), joint capacity building, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, marine pollution, anti-piracy, counter-terrorism and counter-trafficking, and combating marine pollution. In recent years, the Indian military has upgraded its naval, coast guard, and air capabilities in mainland coastal and island territories to better monitor the security situation in the South Asian seas. Much work has focused on the Lakshadweep archipelago off India’s west coast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east. These are areas in which India could benefit from South Korea’s capacity-building assistance. Another area of possible cooperation is maritime domain awareness (MDA). The Indian navy has also worked to boost its situational awareness in the maritime commons, establishing an Information Fusion Centre (IFC) for the Indian Ocean Region. Launched in 2018, the centre processes radar and sensor data from participating countries and offers the data to partners, including all members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. India has sought assistance of extra-regional players and could benefit from South Korean participation in the project. Seoul could start by posting a liaison officer to the IFC, but could also assist India with creating capacity in small Indian Ocean island states. Seoul could also help boost Indian capacity to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) in the neighbourhood. Naval capacity building is a fourth area of India-ROK maritime cooperation. South Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering response to the Indian Navy’s Expression of Interest (EoI) for six advanced conventional submarines under Project-75I (India) has already enthused Indian observers.<28>India’s state-owned Hindustan Shipyard Limited will also cooperate with a shipyard nominated by South Korea on a joint shipbuilding project.<29>As many see it, the navy-to-navy cooperation holds the most potential. As part of deployment of the Eastern Fleet to the South China Sea in April 2019, Indian naval ships Kolkata and Shakti visited Busan to participate in the ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Field Training Exercise (FTX).<30> There has been a greater willingness on the part of the Indian navy to engage with its South Korean counterpart, and there is need to improve even Coast Guard cooperation. This could also help enhance collaboration in the North Eastern Pacific. South Korea’s deteriorating relationship with Japan, however, might pose a problem for New Delhi. In August 2019, a simmering conflict between Japan and the ROK erupted into a full diplomatic crisis, when Japan threatened to slow down exports of materials essential to South Korean industries. Tokyo had earlier announced that it was not inviting South Korea to a multinational naval review it is hosting in October because of strained ties over history, trade and defence.<31> Following the threats by Japan, thousands of protesters marched in the streets of Seoul, accusing Japan of an “economic invasion” and threatening an intelligence-sharing agreement that the US considers crucial to monitoring North Korea’s nuclear buildup.<32> This places New Delhi in a difficult position since Japan is a close partner of India, and a prime collaborator in the Indian Ocean. Yet, India hopes that relations between Seoul and Tokyo would ultimately improve.  Seoul, too, remains concerned about New Delhi’s growing suspicions of Chinese maritime activity in South Asia. As South Korean scholars and policymakers see it, China’s growing economic interests in the Indian Ocean justify a commensurate Chinese naval presence in the region. Any suggestion by New Delhi then that South Korea could form part of a multilateral coalition aimed at containing China in the IOR is treated with skepticism in Seoul. South Korea wishes to develop a security relationship with India, but not as a ploy to contain growing Chinese power. ‘Strategic equilibrium’ is more what Seoul seeks in Asia, and it is willing to partner the US for a desirable end-state. 


In many ways, India and South Korea face similar imperatives in defining their strategic equation. Both states feel the pressure to balance between the United States and China, whilst collaborating with other regional powers in South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi and Seoul remain keen to promote strategic stability in the Asia Pacific, but recognise that the long-standing “hub and spoke” system of separate bilateral alliances between the US is at risk, with many regional powers following independent policies without publicly breaking away from Washington. The reasons underlying the positive trajectory of the India-South Korea relationship are then contingent. There are strategic and economic factors pushing New Delhi and Seoul into a close embrace, impelling them to cooperate for the achievement of common goals. Given the complexities of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific, India would perhaps desist from drifting militarily northwards, and Seoul too would be careful not to be seen siding with New Delhi. For the time being, India and the ROK would perhaps be content developing close economic ties. Yet both sides know a geopolitical crisis could occur at anytime, compelling them to review their options. Not surprisingly, there seems ever greater resolve in Delhi and Seoul to take the military maritime relationship to the next level. The two states are working to leverage their commonalities to expand military exchanges and deepen cooperation. Beyond meetings between high-ranking military officers, and cooperation in combating transnational threats such as maritime terrorism and piracy, both sides are exploring ways of expanding their strategic engagement. What direction India-ROK strategic ties might ultimately take depends on the ability of both to deliver on the promise embodied by their maritime partnership.
This essay originally appeared here

End Notes

<1>Sungil Kwak, “Korea's New Southern Policy: Vision and Challenges”, Korea Institute for International Economic Policy , November 12, 2018. <2> Ibid <3> Rajiv Kumar, “South Korea’s new approach to India”, Observer Research Foundation, October 23, 2018. <4>Moon-shine on India-South Korea ties”, The Hindu, July 13, 2018. <5>Why Korea courts India: India gains importance for Moon as Korea’s ‘miracle economy’ starts to face new challenges”, Times of India, July 18, 2008. <6>President Moon Jae-in's trip seeks to turn India into 'next China' for South Korea”, Straits Times, July 9, 2018. <7>  Ivan Tselichtchev,“Beyond THAAD: the real reason why China is angry with South Korea”, South China Morning Post, October 8, 2017. <8>India - Republic of Korea Joint Statement For Special Strategic Partnership”, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, May 18, 2015. <9>PM Modi on 2 day visit to South Korea”, India Today, February 21, 2019. <10>Modi, Moon express desire to synergise India's Act East Policy with S Korea's New Southern Policy”, The Business Standard, June 28, 2019. <11> Ibid <12> David Brewster, “India's Developing Relationship with South Korea: A Useful Friend in East Asia”, Asian Survey, vol. 50, no. 2, 2010, pp. 402-425 <13> Ibid <14> David Alexander, “South Korea: National involvement in the Indian Ocean Region”, Future Directions International, February 3, 2012. <15> ibid <16> Ibid <17>Defence Minister Rajnath Singh holds bilateral talks with South Korean PM in Seoul”, News 18, September 4, 2019. <18> Ibid <19> Rajeswari Rajagopalan, “Growing India-South Korea strategic synergy”, Observer Research Foundation, September 13, 2019. <20>Rajnath Singh Invites South Korean defence Manufacturing Companies to invest in India”, Defence Aero Space, September 6, 2019. <21> ibid <22>Indian Army gets new teeth, K9 Vajra, M777 howitzers inducted”, Economic Times, November 9, 2018. <23> Ibid <24>US Indo Pacific Strategy Report”, United States Department of Defense, June 1, 2019. <25>Prime Minister’s keynote address at Shangri La Dialogue”, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, June 1, 2018. <26> David Brewster, “India's developing relationship with South Korea: A Useful Friend in East Asia”, Asian Survey, vol. 50, no. 2, 2010 <27>India - Republic of Korea joint statement for special strategic partnership”, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, May 18, 2015. <28>South Korean Company in for the conventional submarines for the Indian Navy”, Financial Times, September 27, 2019. <29>India, South Korea sign agreement to build warships”, Defence News, April 21, 2017. <30> Indian Navy ships Kolkata, "Shakti arrive in South Korea to participate in ADMM-PLUS”, The Business Standard, April 29, 2019. <31>Japan and South Korea feud intensifies”, New York  Times, August 4, 2019. <32> ibid
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Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

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