Finding Seoul in the Indo-Pacific

The outcome of the South Korea-Japan-U.S. trilateral meeting gives New Delhi and Seoul a unique opportunity to enhance their strategic partnership

September 08, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 12:47 am IST

(From left) South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David

(From left) South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David | Photo Credit: AP

The historic Camp David summit in August this year among the leaders of the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) marks the new beginning of the strategic partnership among the three traditional allies. As India and ROK commemorate the 50th year of their diplomatic relations, the Camp David summit, and a refreshingly new strategic thinking in Seoul, offer a unique opportunity for New Delhi to reimagine its relations with South Korea especially in the Indo-Pacific. Along with Japan and the U.S., ROK has the potential to emerge as a key piece in India’s Indo-pacific strategy. It is however important to view the prospects of the India-ROK strategic partnership in the broader context of the recent geopolitical developments in the East Asian region. Here is an outline of some of them.

The significance of the Camp David meet

One of the most significant developments in the region has been the South Korea-Japan-U.S. trilateral meeting in the U.S. or the Camp David summit last month. For one, it indicates a much-needed repair in Seoul-Tokyo relations. This positive bilateral development is the function of a recognition of the changing regional security environment by the three countries. This could, along with AUKUS (the U.S, the United Kingdom, Australia), the Quad (India, Japan, Australia, the U.S.), or CHIP 4 Alliance (the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea) lead to a strengthened U.S.-led alliance structure — though dispersed to reflect the multipolar urges of the contemporary international system — in East Asia.

Second, the summit has the potential to set South Korea on a new strategic direction in the Indo-Pacific with improved relations with Tokyo, more synergy with the American view on China, and enhanced engagement of the Indo-Pacific.

Third, this also marks a strategic shift in Seoul’s traditional approach of not offending China at any cost. The previous government, for instance, was far too shy of articulating the China challenge given its potential strategic fallouts and Seoul’s economic proximity to Beijing (around 20% of its total exports go to China). The new thinking appears to indicate the view that trade dependence on China does not mean passivity towards a growing Chinese military presence in the region.

Fourth, there is today a keen desire in ROK to join the Quad grouping. Seoul has wanted it for some time, but it was unsure whether Tokyo would support its bid given lingering bitterness from historical memories. The Camp David summit may have changed that and it is possible that South Korea might apply for a membership in a Quad Plus next year.

Finally, there is a new foreign policy enthusiasm in Seoul today. President Yoon Suk Yeol has declared that the main goal of his foreign policy would be to make South Korea a “global pivotal state”. The country’s engagement of the U.S. and Japan, support to Ukraine, articulation of the China challenge and a desire to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific underline this new vision.

This geopolitical context provides a unique opportunity for India and ROK to enhance their strategic partnership in the 50th year of their diplomatic relationship. There are a number of reasons why ROK is a natural partner for India in the Indo-Pacific. For one, ROK’s location in the Indo-Pacific, close to China, while being a U.S. ally provides India with a like-minded strategic partner. Second, for both ROK and India, the rise of China and its unilateral attempts at reordering the Asian security architecture are of great concern even if the two sides hesitate in clearly articulating the China threat. Third, for India, Seoul can be an important regional partner at a time when India is closer to the U.S. than ever before in its history, and is concerned about Chinese intentions and power like never before in history.

Defence, nuclear reactors as focus areas

There are several areas where the two countries could focus on in order to strengthen their relationship. At the political and diplomatic levels, the two sides should consider establishing an annual summit at the level of the Foreign Ministers, and a 2+2 format dialogue (India currently has 2+2 dialogues with the U.S., Japan, Australia and Russia). The partnership could also benefit from reciprocal visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Yoon to each other’s country. Perhaps the two sides could be even more ambitious and explore the possibility of negotiating a South Korea-Japan-India-U.S. initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), along the lines of the recently-concluded India-U.S. iCET. Defence is another area where they could strengthen their relationship. South Korea’s willingness and ability to cater to India’s defence needs within the ambit of India’s ‘Make in India’ programme must be utilised. The K9 Vajra, a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, built by L&T with technology from South Korea’s Hanwha Defense is an example in this regard. South Korean-built K2 Black Panther tanks could also be co-produced in India for the Indian Army or third countries.

Another area of collaboration still could be in the context of Korean-built civilian nuclear reactors. Even after the conclusion of the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, India-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver, New Delhi has not been able to import any nuclear reactors due to the difficulties foreign suppliers have with India’s nuclear liability law. Given India’s growing need for clean energy and Seoul’s remarkable track record in supplying cheaper and faster nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and central European states, New Delhi could consider purchasing Korean-built reactors so as to expand the share of nuclear energy in the country’s energy basket — if indeed Seoul is open to working within the Indian liability law and the subsequent assurances given by the Indian government.

ROK, with a new strategic outlook, and along with the U.S., Japan and Australia, is uniquely placed to help India advance its interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research

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