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PM’s South Korea visit is an opportunity to shed India’s diplomatic inhibitions

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
March 23, 2012 2:15:54 am

PM’s South Korea visit is an opportunity to shed India’s diplomatic inhibitions

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second visit to Seoul in barely 15 months underlines South Korea’s rising international profile as well as its growing strategic importance to India.

Singh was in Seoul to attend the G-20 economic summit in November 2010. Before he joins the world leaders at the Second Nuclear Security Summit next week in Seoul,the prime minister will have bilateral consultations with President Lee Myung-bak.

In an unintended consequence,the visit will draw a contrast between the recent political fortunes of Singh and Lee. Singh began his second tenure as PM in 2009 with the promise to deliver a government that performs. Lee,who is allowed only one term of presidency under the constitution,outlined a bold agenda when he took charge in early 2008 for raising Korean prosperity and finding Seoul its rightful place in the world.

The governments of Singh and Lee have both been rocked by scandals of various kinds. But under Lee,Seoul kept its eyes focused on long-term national goals; whether it is in diplomacy or the export of pop culture,South Korea has now come into its own. In contrast,the UPA appears to have lost the plot. Stumbling from one crisis to another,New Delhi seems unable to take advantage of the many international opportunities that have come its way.

Despite its emergence as an industrial powerhouse over the last few decades — South Korea is the world’s 15th largest economy and 7th largest exporter — it is only recently that Seoul has chosen to match its economic clout with a measure of diplomatic activism.

South Korea’s traditional emphasis has been on managing its unending confrontation with North Korea through the longstanding alliance with the United States and coping with the policies of other powers in the region — China,Japan and Russia.

Looking beyond its Northeast Asian environment,South Korea has now begun to seek a larger international role. It hosted the first summit of the G-20 — set up after the financial crisis that enveloped the world in 2008 — in Asia.

At next week’s Nuclear Security Summit,Seoul will receive more heads of state and government than it has ever before. About 60 countries and multilateral organisations will be represented at the nuclear summit that will focus on the security of atomic materials and facilities and the mitigation of dangers from nuclear terrorism. The first nuclear summit was convened by President Barack Obama in Washington two years ago.

Lending a strong outward political orientation to South Korea,Lee has rejuvenated the military alliance with the US and signed a controversial free-trade agreement with Washington.

At the same time,Lee normalised relations with Russia,stepped up South Korean engagement with Japan and China,and began to reach out to many regional leaders beyond Northeast Asia,including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

South Korea has long been described as a shrimp among the Asian whales. Its growing economic weight in the region tended to reinforce Korea’s image as a political dwarf. Under President Lee,South Korea has demonstrated the potential to carve out a place for itself as Asia’s big fish joust with each other. Small but dynamic,aligned with the distant power but determined to retain independence vis-a-vis the neighbouring giants,South Korea is India’s natural partner in Asia.

South Korea became an economic player in India soon after Delhi embarked on major reforms at the turn of the 1990s. South Korean companies were quick to move into India and establish themselves as household names in a short period of time.

But it is only under Lee that the bilateral relationship acquired some political substance and a strategic orientation. Lee was the guest of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2010 and together with Singh announced an ambitious plan to build a long-term partnership with India.

During Lee’s tenure,India and South Korea signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement in 2009. Trade since then has accelerated to reach $20 billion in 2011 and is expected to double again in the next three years.

Of special significance is the agreement on civil nuclear cooperation that was signed during President Pratibha Patil’s visit to South Korea.

When P.V. Narasimha Rao made the first Indian prime ministerial visit to Seoul in 1993,it was India that agreed to sell heavy water for South Korea’s civil nuclear industry. Two decades later,the dramatic progress in South Korea’s nuclear capabilities was underlined by the fact that its companies outbid the fancied French and American reactor builders to win a $22 billion contract to build nuclear power stations in the United Arab Emirates. A year-and-a-half ago,A.K. Antony became India’s first defence minister to visit South Korea. He signed agreements for greater exchanges between the two military establishments and cooperation in military research and development.

Delhi is considering the purchase of modern mine sweepers for its navy from the Korean shipyards,which are ready to boost India’s woefully inadequate maritime infrastructure.

India and South Korea have also begun to look beyond the bilateral relationship and define a set of common regional interests.

As major importers of energy and large trading nations,South Korea and India have recognised their common stakes in ensuring the security of sea lanes and protecting the freedom of navigation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Above all,Delhi and Seoul have every reason to work together in structuring a stable balance of power in Asia.

Singh and Lee deserve much credit for conjuring a strategic partnership out of what until recently was a mercantile relationship between Delhi and Seoul.

But the outcomes from this partnership,as in so many other strategic engagements that India has embarked upon,will remain sub-optimal so long as the Delhi Durbar can’t shake off its current paralysis.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi
express@expressindia.com

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