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India-ROK in the Age of Indo-Pacific: Synergizing the Act East and the New Southern Policy

By Prerna Gandhi

The rise of the Indo-Pacific has been a turning point in the international order. It is not just a geographical construct, but a reiteration of the interconnectedness between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans that cuts across all regional aspects from economic to security. The increasing uncertainty and the failure of existing international institutions to address exigent problems has led to a need for seeking reaffirmation of a rules-based order. The common rules include enabling peaceful resolution of disputes, respect for international law, pursuit of free trade and unimpeded navigation, expanding connectivity, and enhancing global governance through shared responsibilities.

The Indo-Pacific has been the most cohesive and coherent effort in advocating a rules-based order as the world transitions to multipolarity. Convergence of strategic threats, if not interests among major powers, has been a driving factor for the growing traction of the Indo-Pacific. Many countries including regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) have released their Indo-Pacific strategies. While India has been one of the foremost champions of the Indo-Pacific as a Quad member, South Korea has only recently shed its inhibitions under a new administration that it would frame its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

Synergizing the Act East Policy and the New Southern Policy in Bilateral Context

India and South Korea have convergent regional frameworks of Act East and the New Southern Policy that encompass large regions of the Indo-Pacific. The Act East Policy (AEP) of India is essentially an extension of the Look East Policy (LEP). The LEP was conceived in the 1990s as an economic initiative to benefit from the rapid growth trajectory in East Asia after a severe balance of payments crisis. Later, it expanded to include political, strategic, and cultural dimensions with institutionalized dialogues for cooperation. India upgraded its diplomatic relations to strategic partnerships and signed free trading agreements with numerous regional countries, including with the ROK.

The Act East Policy announced in 2014 under the Modi administration has sought to expand ties with the Indo-Pacific region, focusing on security, connectivity, capacity building, development cooperation, and a more proactive Indian leadership role in regional and multilateral mechanisms. The Northeast Region of India has also gained further salience serving as a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, the New Southern Policy (NSP) introduced by former South Korean President Moon Jae In in 2017 is a consequent evolution of the ROK’s middle power strategy. After the turbulence in ties with China following the decision to deploy the THAAD missile defence system and heating US rhetoric towards North Korea, South Korea realized the urgent need to diversify its strategic space. With the growing centrality of ASEAN in the region and the rise of India, the NSP in 2017 sought to build more functional cooperation on the three pillars of prosperity, people, and peace.

The AEP and NSP arise from a desire to secure a more autonomous strategic space for both India and South Korea. The two countries also see significant convergence and the potential to jointly contribute to peace, prosperity, and security in the region. The Joint Statement in 2018 stated that India sees ROK as an indispensable partner in its AEP, while South Korea similarly views India as a central pillar of its NSP.

Trade and economics remain the driving factors for India-South Korea relations. In 2015, the bilateral relationship was upgraded to a Special Strategic Partnership, with both sides agreeing on the need to upgrade the India-ROK Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Strong complementarities exist between Indian and South Korean economies. Though there was a slight fall in 2020 due to the pandemic, the bilateral trade climbed up to $ 25.56 billion in 2021. South Korea also held FDI stock in India of nearly $5 billion in 2021. Concurrently, Indian companies made large investments in South Korea such as Tata motors acquiring Daewoo Commercial Vehicle, Mahindra & Mahindra taking majority equity in Ssangyong Motor Company etc.

India offers a very viable destination for South Korean economic diversification from China with its large market and trained human resource pool. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi launched the ‘Korea Plus’ as a one stop window to promote and facilitate Korean investments in India. The 2018 visit by President Moon to India was landmark in invigorating the strategic partnership. The visit saw signing of 11 MoUs, including the inauguration of the Samsung production factory in Noida dubbed the world’s largest mobile factory.

New avenues articulated by NSP plus (in 2020) such as development cooperation, infrastructure, digital innovation, climate change, health can be instrumental in achieving goal of $50 billion in bilateral trade by 2030. Technology has become a key thrust in economic cooperation in recent years evidenced by India-Korea Future Strategy Group (2018), India-Korea Startup Hub (2019) and India-Korea Centre for Research and Innovation Cooperation (2020)[ii]. Likewise, Indian initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure offer important synergies with NSP.

Sociocultural cooperation remains strong with focus on language training, cultural studies and popularity of soft power such as yoga and Hallyu wave. Strategic cooperation in recent years has received a strong boost with strengthened exchanges through the Joint Commission Meeting, Vice-Ministerial 2+2 dialogue, dialogue between National Security Councils, growing visits by staff of military services, expanding military exercises and identification of defense R&D projects.

In February 2020, the two countries finalized the ‘roadmap for defense industry cooperation’ under which India committed to easing regulations on South Korean defense firms in India. The Third Strategic Dialogue in Dec 2021 between the National Security Councils identified areas of cooperation in Cyber Security and Information Technology, Maritime Security, and threats and challenges from terrorism, extremism, and radicalization. South Korea has also emerged as a very suitable partner under the “Make in India” format evidenced through the K9 Howitzers project. Under President Yoon Suk-yeol, NSP and the focus on India can be expected to be enhanced through his vision of making Korea a ‘global pivotal state.’

Synergizing the Act East Policy and the New Southern Policy in Regional Context

President Yoon has made a departure with his predecessor by publicly stating that South Korea would be keen to participate in the Quad working groups. The Quad by virtue of its flexibility brings together strategic capabilities of the four member countries (the US, Japan, Australia, and India) in bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and plurilateral formats to timely address Current President of RoK Mr. Yoon Suk Yeol

the new strategic realities. It would be a farce to not emphasize the prime challenge posed by China’s aggressive and unilateralist behavior for the region. The China challenge remains a defining feature of India’s and South Korea’s strategic canvas in political, economic, regional and security domains.

China’s rapid force modernization and reshaping of its nuclear deterrence without being committed to any arms control agreements have complicated matters as never before. Under the Biden administration, the Quad has been elevated to summit-level interactions that involve regular meetings between heads of government in the four countries. Along with security, Quad has also focused on economic activities such as critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure, energy, health etc. along with reshaping supply chains. Both India and South Korea are partners in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) released this year in May. The IPEF will focus on four key pillars of Connected Economy, Resilient Economy, Clean Economy, and Fair Economy to establish high-standard commitments for the region.

To achieve greater synergy between AEP and NSP, there is large potential for seeking convergence with the Indo-Pacific strategies of the US, ASEAN, and other regional players.

The Biden administration after assuming office in 2020, very early on reiterated continuity of US commitment to the Indo-Pacific. In February 2022, the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States was released and emphasized strengthening ties with India and the ironclad treaty with the ROK. It identified People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the impetus for the intensifying American focus on the region. It noted that the objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favourable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific released in 2019 though did not mention the PRC’s undermining role, defined its focus on maritime security, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, economic and non-traditional security cooperation. It also sketched out a central role for ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the region.

Among the other major regional powers among Japan, Australia, France, EU etc. who have articulated Indo-Pacific strategies, there are substantial opportunities in cooperating with Japan. Both India and South Korea have trilateral mechanisms with the US and Japan. Japan is also important for South Korea in dealing with the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. The need to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) has become salient. The Indo-Pacific Age with new challenges has also brought new paradigms in enlarging India-South Korea cooperation that allows both countries to jointly navigate the uncertainty and turbulence in the region and the global environment.

About the Author

Prerna Gandhi is an Associate Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Her research interests include Korean Peninsula, China, Japan, East Asian Economy, and Indo-Pacific affairs. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @prernagandhi20

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