Arms, nuclear sales and satellite launches now on bilateral agenda

South Korea — one of the first countries to grab the opportunities provided by Indian economic reforms two decades ago — is now looking to add strategic depth to its relationship with India, pushing for the sale of nuclear reactors and big ticket arms exports that have until now been the preserve of major powers like the United States, France and Russia.

Playing on its strengths, India, too, is keen to widen the bilateral agenda. The joint statement issued at the end of a meeting here Sunday between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Lee Myung-Bak envisages cooperation in space activities, including the Indian launch of Korean satellites, as well maritime security, besides pitching for a trillion dollars of Korean investment in India's infrastructure sector over the next five years. Dr. Singh also asked Mr. Lee to back Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

But it is the Korean pitch for military and nuclear cooperation that is likely to be noticed in world capitals. India said it would post a defence attaché in Seoul and explore joint ventures in the manufacture and R&D of military equipment. “President Lee underscored that the ROK side wanted to increase cooperation with India in military and defence industry including…naval ships, aircraft and ship-building,” the joint statement said. On the nuclear side, it notes: “President Lee requested that the Indian government allocate a site for Korean nuclear reactors.” Sites have already been set aside for Russia, France and the U.S.

India and the Republic of Korea signed a nuclear cooperation agreement last year. Since a similar agreement with Japan is still some distance away, Korean capabilities in building reactor vessels would be of use not just for bilateral projects but also for third-country suppliers like Areva who normally source components from Japanese firms. “Having the Koreans in the fray also means India's other nuclear partners have to keep the price of their reactors competitive,” a senior Indian official told The Hindu.

The joint statement backed ASEAN's leadership of the East Asia Summit (EAS) process and welcomed the U.S. and Russian membership of the EAS. The two leaders also welcomed the idea of a trilateral dialogue between India, ROK and Japan at the Track-II level. Though a senior Ministry of External Affairs official, Sanjay Singh, rejected suggestions by reporters that India's growing ties with Korea were aimed at China, it was evident that Seoul and New Delhi have common concerns about the situation in North Korea. Prime Minister Singh reiterated India's view — in the run-up to Pyongyang's upcoming long-range rocket launch — that “nothing should be done which increases tensions in the region and violates the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions,” a stand President Lee chose to highlight in his statement to the press after the meeting.

With bilateral trade volumes — especially after the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement kicked in two years back-up nearly 70 per cent to $20 billion, the two leaders set a target of $40 billion by 2015. An agreement on simplification of visa procedures was also signed.

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