Sushma Swaraj’s visit to South Korea and the way ahead

sushma-southkoreaEver since 1992, successive Indian governments have been pursuing the “Look East” policy with considerable vigour and success. Though the drive towards the East started with its focus essentially on ASEAN countries, it was subsequently expanded to include Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and even China. The present Indian Government under Narendra Modi has emphasised the need to maintain its tempo and even turn the “Look East” into “Act East” policy.

Since South Korea is an important element in New Delhi’s eastern drive, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first visit to Seoul in the last week of December, 2014 carried a great deal of significance as one more step in the direction of further cementing the bilateral engagements. Since Ms Swaraj had met her Korean counterpart Mr Yun Byung-Se earlier in Myanmar at the time of the meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in August, she had a certain degree of familiarity with him that could have been helpful in her deliberations at Seoul. It is also relevant to note that Prime Minister Modi himself had met Korean President Park Geun-hye in November in Myanmar and discussed subjects concerning the evolving bilateral strategic partnership. These two meetings constituted a valuable backdrop to Ms Swaraj’s visit to Seoul.

Over the years, both India and ROK have created a strong institutional framework to buttress their rapidly expanding political and economic engagements, and several useful exchanges of official visits at different levels have taken place. In 1996, they set up the Joint Commission chaired by the foreign ministers of the two countries and it met alternately in New Delhi and Seoul. Though the Commission was not meeting annually, at the time of its meeting in New Delhi in 2013, both governments strongly expressed their desire for holding security and foreign policy dialogues more regularly. In addition to Joint Commission, they have also created the India-ROK Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue at the secretary level.

Since the December visit provided the first formal occasion for Ms Swaraj to meet top Korean leaders including President Park Geun-hye, Trade, and foreign ministers, it was necessary for her to explain to them the political and economic orientations of the Modi government and lay out the prospects of cooperation in different sectors. As members of several regional forums like the East Asian Summit (EAS ), the ARF, and the ASEM, both countries share common perspectives on a range of issues like counter terrorism, UN reforms, maritime security , safety of the global commons, energy cooperation and the peaceful settlement of all pending territorial and maritime issues. India is interested in the establishment of peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula through dialogue. India is also concerned about proliferation of WMDs from DPRK and wants the international community to address the issue more seriously.

Both countries showed considerable satisfaction at the current state of their economic relations. Nevertheless, one should note that their bilateral trade having reached a peak of $20.5 billion in 2011 came down to $ 17.5 billion in 2012. They felt that in order to tap the full potential of their economic partnership, it is necessary to take appropriate measures to expand their trade. Though they had set a target of $ 40 billion by 2015, the current trade figure is only about $18 billion. To be sure, they had already signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), but it has still not produced the expected results. During President Park’s visit to India in January 2014, both countries agreed to upgrade the CEPA to make it work more effectively to augment the volume of trade. Since then, this subject has continued to draw the attention of both countries and a consensus seems to be emerging on setting up a joint negotiation committee to look into it. It is expected that India’s commerce minister will visit South Korea soon to address this issue.

In her wide-ranging talks with Korean trade and industry minister Yoon Sang-jick, Ms Swaraj wanted Korea to take advantage of the new opportunities arising out of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ programme. In particular, she indicated India’s interest in exploring the possibilities of Korean co-production of LNG tankers in Indian shipyards. Since India’s need for LNG is going to multiply in the coming years, India would be even interested in purchasing Korean tankers. Ms Swaraj also stressed the need to address the trade deficit which is in favour of South Korea right now. In this context, she also impressed upon the Korean side of the need to be more receptive to Indian pharmaceuticals and software imports.

Korean investment in India has made a steady advance and until 2013 accounted for about $3 billion. Korean companies like the Hyundai, LG and Samsung have become household names in India and account for significant market shares in the automobile and electronics sectors. But there are many other sectors such as power and infrastructure where Korean investment could be augmented. Their profile in projects involving the construction of airports, railways, highways, bridges, industrial parks, etc, is still very low. Unfortunately, a mega private project by Posco involving the construction of a steel plant in Orissa state is still being delayed due to technical reasons despite the strong support of the two sides.

The Korean side showed considerable interest in energy cooperation and expects India, with its unlimited coal wealth, to take advantage of Korea’s advanced technology in coal and gas technology. Korea is also interested in joint cooperation in solar and nuclear energy sectors by holding joint committee meetings on a regular basis. Cooperation in the civilian nuclear sphere is a subject of great importance for both countries which had signed an agreement in 2011. Since then, South Korea has been keen to sell its nuclear reactors to India but without success. Seoul’s interest in the subject has become stronger as it is competing with Japan in trying to supply nuclear reactors to West Asian and East European countries.

Ms Swaraj also carried on her dialogue with the Korean defence minister and the National Security Adviser and explored the possibilities of bilateral defence cooperation since the Modi government has liberalised FDI in defence sector up to 49%. It was agreed that India’s defence minister would make a visit to Seoul in the first quarter of 2015 to pursue the talks further. In her talks with the Korean National Security Advisor Kim Kwan-jin, she discussed the possibilities of cooperation in cyber security.

(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)