India arc in Moon’s southern policy
Seoul may have shown restrain in openly endorsing the concept ‘Indo-Pacific’ as it has been carefully treading its foreign policy between China-led and US-led regional environments. This has, however, not discouraged the Moon administration from positioning South Korean interests more intently in the Indo-Pacific region. South Korean President’s three-day visit to India from July 8 rationalises the ‘newness’ of his new southern policy
If South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s “new northern policy” is intended to build consensus on how to bring peace and stability in northeast Asia while promoting Seoul’s economic interests in the Greater Eurasia region, his “new southern policy” is flagged to build a partnership of economic interests in Indo-Pacific.
Moon’s visit to India from July 8-11 and then to Singapore from July 11-13 rationalises the “newness” of his new southern policy. This newness is more about offering a new context to Seoul’s foreign relations approach to the countries in Asia, primarily focusing on ASEAN and India. The new southern policy is a compound and complex foreign policy approach that India needs to comprehend appropriately. First, it is about expanding Seoul’s economic outreach in ASEAN and India, which are physically more in South Korea’s southernmost part in Asia. Second, it emphasises the vitality of ASEAN and India in Korean foreign and economic diplomacy which explains the comfort factor that South Korea enjoys towards the most important regional mechanism and the second-largest economy in Asia respectively. Third, it illustrates a “no conflicting” approach that Seoul enjoys with both ASEAN and India largely, compared with its relationship with China and Japan. Fourth, it explains a limited but expanded regional vision linking to Indo-Pacific. On the whole, this policy approach is aimed to position South Korea’s interests more intently in the Southeast Asian region, including in South Asia.
Officially, Seoul might have shown restrain in openly endorsing the concept “Indo-Pacific”. It has been carefully treading its foreign policy between a China-led and US-led regional environment. This has, however, not discouraged the Moon administration from positioning South Korean interests more intently in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, South Korea has always shown a keen interest to engage with ASEAN, the core of Indo-Pacific. But the aim to engage with India under the New Southern Policy is a carefully orchestrated and an “exclusive” foreign policy strategy that Seoul has brought to expand its economic outreach in South Asia. South Korea’s earlier foreign policy approaches such as “Sunshine Policy”, “New Asia Initiative” and “Northeast Asia Peace Initiative” (NAPCI) had always factored New Delhi as an important factor but did not engage purposefully, pointing out that New Delhi did not have the arc to influence politics in Asia. South Korea visualised engaging with India more bilaterally than regionally. New Delhi too did not factor South Korea prominently in its Look East policy, which was more limited to ASEAN until recently.
South Korea’s relationship with ASEAN has witnessed steady progress in the last two decades. In 1989, Seoul became ASEAN’s sectoral dialogue partner and in 1991 a full dialogue partner. Free Trade Area (FTA) between ASEAN and South Korea was completed in 2010. As a result, ASEAN has become South Korea’s second-largest trading partner, with trade worth more than $120 billion. Moreover, despite its overarching problems, Seoul has continuously been expanding its economic outreach relationship with China and Japan, which are ASEAN’s two prominent dialogue partners.
Why has Seoul factored India exclusively in its New Southern Policy? Undoubtedly, it is New Delhi’s growing importance and influence in East Asia and also in Asian as well as global affairs. But there are more shades to this approach.
First, South Korea’s cautious but consciously expanding foreign policy context explains this stance. The “Northeast Asia Plus Community” foreign policy approach is intended to have a pragmatic and balanced outreach programme in both the northern and southern aspects of Asia, which are South Korea’s two critical geographic ends. In the New Northern Policy, Seoul puts peace and security ahead of economic diplomacy; whereas in the New Southern Policy it emphasises more on the economic diplomacy. Both ASEAN and India enhance Seoul’s Indo-Pacific presence in some ways. Besides, the new policy approach allows South Korea to reposition its Asia policy more prominently than before.
Second, India’s importance has grown substantially in South Korea’s foreign policy prism as a key player in the Indo-Pacific region. Seoul is aware of India’s centrality in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy and the United States’ importance of India in its Indo-Pacific strategy. South Korea does not really want to openly endorse India as a partner in this Indo-Pacific configuration. At the same time, it does not want to put forward an impression that it underrates India as a power in the region, hence seeking a strategic partnership, though more bilaterally. Taiwan’s “New Southbound policy”, which equally factors both ASEAN and India as two central components, encourages South Korea to focus on India. ASEAN maintains a growing relationship pattern with India in Asia, making a common ground for South Korea’s foreign policy.
Third, China’s rising influence in Asian and global affairs has encouraged Seoul to search for new partners. After the THAAD deployment, Seoul’s potential tourism industry suffered due to China’s decision to put a check on Chinese visiting South Korea. China’s age-old partnership with North Korea has also encouraged Seoul to search for alternative partners without abandoning Beijing as an economic partner. China’s rising economic and strategic influence in Asia and the world has posed a greater challenge to Korea’s economic interests and investments. Japan too poses a challenge to South Korea’s economic investment opportunities in Asia and beyond. Given India’s “cold-peace” relationship with China, Seoul has positioned India as a prospective and exclusive partner in the longer term in its bilateral framework in Asia if not in the global framework.
Fourth, Seoul wants to recapture the potential Indian market which is the most important aspect of its New Southern Policy. South Korean automobile, technological and consumer products maybe a regular household feature in India, but these industrial products are facing an enormous challenge from Chinese and Japanese products. Besides, trade and economic contacts between India and South Korea remain below their potential even though the two sides have signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA). Seoul would also wish to have stronger defence ties with India to eye to export potential small-scale defence equipment and instruments to Indian market. A good momentum is already visible in the shipyard sector between India and South Korea. But Seoul’s eventual aim is to transform this good momentum to other potential Defence sectors.
In strategic terms, Seoul’s expectations are specific. Seoul not only wants to build stronger economic contacts with India but also wants to figure out if India will accord South Korea ahead of Japan in its foreign policy engagement. Moon’s visit to India must encourage New Delhi to seriously read the new context arriving in India-South Korea relations.
(The writer is a Fellow and Centre Head for East Asia at IDSA, New Delhi. This paper is partially based on the author’s speech at the Korea-India Strategic Partnership Conference organised jointly by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi and Yonsei University, South Korea, in New Delhi on June 20, 2018)
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