From August 15th to the Quad: The Contemporary Strategic Relationship of India and South Korea

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August 15th symbolizes a special commonality shared between India and South Korea as they achieved their independence in 1947 and 1945 respectively. However, beyond this imperative day, the bilateral ties between the countries have been exponentially deeper on almost every front. In recent years, the cultural exchange between both nations through the mediums of music, cinema, cuisine, linguistics, martial arts, and cosmetic products has been unprecedented. On a parallel front, economic relations are at a monumental rise. According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, the bilateral trade between Korea and India amounts to USD 23.7 billion in 2021, a 40 percent increase with a scope of further expansion through the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Yet, the paramount intriguing component in the relationship is the strategic and security relations of both countries. Specifically, this essay analyzes how both countries’ participation in the  Quad contextualizes and influences their bilateral relationship.

For the first time under former President Moon Jae In, Seoul has developed an effective program for outreach to India and other ASEAN countries, known as New Southern Policy (NSP), a complimentary policy to India’s Act East Policy. Traditionally, South Korea’s foreign policy has been focused on its dealing with four major powers (United States, Japan, China, and Russia). Under NSP, South Korea attempts to alter this lopsided balance. It has recognized the need to engage more with South Asian countries and towards that end, it seeks to renegotiate its social, cultural, political, and economic ties with these nations. Through this program, South Korea hopes to balance the competition between its closest ally, the U.S., and its largest trading partner, China. The New Southern Policy has three pillars—prosperity (economic cooperation), people (sociocultural cooperation), and peace.

Though it has yet to reach its full potential, India and South Korea’s relationship is by no means insignificant. India views South Korea as an “indispensable partner” in its Act East Policy, and bilateral ties have expanded across all domains since diplomatic relations were established in 1973. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration in India, there has been a deepening engagement between the two countries as they both try to balance a more assertive China in the Southeast Asian region. The development has especially been very impressive in the defense sector, with various visits by top officials of both countries to strengthen the security apparatus in the Pacific region. In 2019, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited South Korea to discuss bilateral defense relations and to build a roadmap for cooperation in domains such as the naval, land, and aero systems; research and development, and quality assurance.

On paper as well, initiatives have promulgated the deepening of bilateral ties. The relationship was established as a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2010 and subsequently a ‘special strategic partner’ in 2015. 

India and South Korea’s diplomatic relations could witness a significant improvement if South Korea chooses to increase its engagement with the  Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which consists of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. In South Korea’s perception, engagement with the Quad results in increased cooperation with India, Japan, and the U.S. Initially, South Korea’s approach towards the Quad was reluctant and restrictive due to its covert security focus. However, as the Quad expands its operations to non-traditional security matters, current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has been more receptive to cooperation with the Quad. Moreover, Yoon’s foreign policy seeks to build a healthy U.S.-South Korea alliance to achieve ‘strategic stability’ in the Indo-Pacific Region. The fundamental structural mechanism in maintaining a prosperous, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific Region is strengthening the ties with the Quad. Alignment with ‘like-minded’ countries like the U.S. and India who share a similar vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific would specifically address the concerns of China’s growing assertive influence over the region. Most importantly, the engagement would provide a way for South Korea to attain a strong security posture and position itself as an imperative player in the region, especially on non-traditional security issues such as climate change, cybersecurity, and technological advancements.

At the same time, there is still scope for advancing cooperation in other areas. A recent report stated that India faces dozens of cyber attacks every day. Thus the cyber security realm is evolving to be a potent tool. India could build link-ups with like-minded countries like South Korea to develop partnerships in the areas of cyber security, 5G, advanced technologies, and maritime partnerships, to name a few. Global South Korean brands like LG, Kia, and Samsung, should be incentivized to set up production plants in India, have tie-ups with domestic industries, and introduce advanced technologies to the Indian market. Such partnerships are beneficial for both countries as on the one hand, they provide a ready market to the South Korean companies, and they fit in with Modi’s vision for Atmanirbhar Bharat in which domestic industries produce products for the global market in collaboration with international brands.

India-South Korea bilateral relations have been on a progressive path in recent years and with promising opportunities and existing cooperative initiatives, a resilient and strong alliance between the nations seems probable in the near future. The strengthening of relations on all fronts has resulted in a call for further improvement in strategic relations between both countries. A limited yet existent relationship between India and North Korea could complicate the India-South Korea partnership but the aligning interests in their fundamental strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific region bring both nations closer. Although reluctance still prevails among the Quad members regarding the expansion of the multilateral organization to new members, further engagement with the Quad eventually caters to the strategic needs and vision of South Korea. Further, it would provide an imperative gravity to the strategic relations between India and South Korea.

Works Cited:

Botto, Kathryn. 2021. “Why Is South Korea Strengthening Ties with India and Southeast Asia?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. h-india-and-southeast-asia-pub-85469.

Botto, Kathryn. 2021. “South Korea Beyond Northeast Asia: How Seoul Is Deepening Ties With India and ASEAN.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. eoul-is-deepening-ties-with-india-and-asean-pub-85572.

Roy, Torunika. 2021. “Connecting people and deepening ties: India-South Korea relations.” Observer Research Foundation. outh-korea-relations/.

Sharma, Abhishek. 2022. “South Korea’s New Foreign Policy: Opportunities for India.” South Asian Voices.

Singh, Abhijit. 2022. “Revitalization of strategic ties between India and Korea – Assessing the possibilities of maritime partnerships.” Observer Research Foundation. korea/.