Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his East Asian tour with an important visit to South Korea. The reasons for the outreach to Seoul are fairly straightforward. South Korea is an impressive tiger economy renowned for its prowess in manufacturing, IT services and R&D. It lifted itself out of poverty through export-led growth and investments in education and infrastructure and is now the 14th biggest economy in the world.
These attributes make it an obvious candidate for the Make in India campaign, which has been the focus of Mr Modi’s messages to audiences abroad. The PM made his pitch underlining that the “sectors which are strong in Korea are very important” for India’s development. He mentioned transport, railways, ports, ship-building, power, and electronics as promising areas for investment.
He admitted that the reason for low South Korean investments “lies with us [and] not with you” — and went on to underline his efforts to ease business conditions in India. His hosts duly pledged $10 billion in finance for priority infrastructure projects and both sides agreed to cooperate in a range of sectors.
These are provisional outcomes for now, but the strategic underpinnings of India-South Korea ties are on a more assured footing. Both countries have upgraded ties to a ‘special strategic partnership’. This is not a ritual diplomatic gesture but a move borne out of shared perspectives on the emerging order in Asia.
In a recent interview with Rajya Sabha TV, Chung Min Lee, South Korea’s ambassador for national security affairs, outlined Seoul’s view of the world, dwelling on anxieties in Asia owing to China’s recent posturing.
Mr Lee pointed out that Korea’s economic ties with Beijing remain strong with bilateral trade worth over $300 billion, but he also said that “countries surrounding China throughout the Asian littorals are now realising that you have to really band together” —“not to contain China — that’s impossible — but…at least tell the Chinese that they are not the only one on the block”.
Referring to India-South Korea ties, Mr Lee spoke of both countries being IT powers and democracies with shared values. He pointed out that “for the first time in Asian history, China, India and Japan are all rising at the same time. And India is the only country of those three with which we have no historical baggage”.
Seoul, a key ally of Washington with whom New Delhi has signed a ‘joint strategic vision’, also sees India a key security provider in the Indian Ocean. Both countries have thus decided to convene annual summits and increase contact among foreign ministries, national security councils, and defence institutions. The intriguing diplomatic dynamics in Asia continue.