This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of formal ties between India and South Korea. In the course of these five decades, the bilateral relations between both countries have grown by leaps and bounds. Both countries have established close relations in the fields of strategy, economy, environment, and socio-cultural exchanges. However, in the current geopolitical setting, India and South Korea find themselves increasingly embroiled in the great power tussle between the United States and China, threatening their position as regional and global leaders. Given the existence of common concerns and interests, India and South Korea must look towards forging better relations to lead and realise the potential of the much anticipated Asian Century.
Economic cooperation has been central to India-South Korea relations. After the conclusion of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2010, India and South Korea rejuvenated their bilateral relations. CEPA commits both nations to lower or eliminate taxes on a wide variety of imports. According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), bilateral trade increased by 42.7% in 2010, the year CEPA was enacted, and has remained at a minimum of $15 billion in yearly total trade volume ever since. CEPA was revised in 2018 to reduce more tariffs to expand bilateral trade to $50 billion by 2030.
Bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $27.8 billion in 2022, registering an increase of nine percent from the previous year, a testament to their growing economic cooperation. Exports from India stood at $8.9 billion while exports from South Korea stood at $18.9 billion, marking the highest total trade volume between the two nations.
Extending their economic relations to the realm of strategy, India and South Korea raised their bilateral relations to that of a ‘Strategic Partnership’ in 2010. This collaboration was upgraded to the level of a ‘Special Strategic Partnership,’ with the goal of contributing ‘new substance, speed, and content’ in 2015. Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy has further strengthened relations with India, seeing it as a regional force. The natural connection between India’s Act East Policy and South Korea’s New Southern Policy has provided additional impetus for collaboration. As a result, the two countries have scaled up engagement in recent years. The annual defence ministerial dialogue has supplied the bilateral ties with the essential policy backing and structure. Bilateral maritime cooperation has also been a thriving element of the expanding defence and security ties.
However, the emerging challenges require India and South Korea to further expand relations and build on the foundation of past cooperation to address mutual concerns and interests.
India and South Korea are both entangled in a brewing Cold War between the United States and China. While the United States has been a close ally, China is their largest trading partner and plays a major role in maintaining peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and the South Asian subcontinent. As a result, the problem of a rising China in the context of contemporary geopolitical changes is a key concern for both countries. India and South Korea have endeavoured to preserve strategic autonomy to keep their foreign policy independent of the great power struggles of the United States and China as they have found themselves more compelled to assume a balancing role in the shifting geopolitical landscape. Both countries share democratic values, free and open navigation, and commitment to a liberal norms-based system. The war in Ukraine and North Korea’s aggressive stance has further aggravated their concerns over the disregard for the rules-based international order.
These emerging challenges call for greater cooperation and collaboration between the two nations. While security and stability concerns have acquired prominence in the face of a global backlash against democratic values, India and South Korea must consider forming a partnership with like-minded states to safeguard their treasured liberal ideals. Such an alliance can help nations work towards ensuring strategic autonomy and building a network of states concerned with safeguarding the liberal rules-based order.
South Korea has emerged as a key global defence exporter in recent years. South Korea’s defence exports amounted to $17.3 billion in 2022, recording a 140% rise from the previous year. With reports of Indian worries over the import of Russian armament and defence systems, South Korea might emerge as a major arms supplier to India. Diversifying defence import sources would assist New Delhi in avoiding over-reliance on any one large power for its security demands. This type of engagement will also help the two nations achieve the goals of their Special Strategic Partnership.
Both India and South Korea share a rich cultural heritage. Buddhism travelled from India to South Korea in the 4th century and has, since then, established cultural ties between the two nations. This common link between the two countries can be further used to bolster ties and deepen people-to-people contacts. The growing popularity of K-Pop and K-Dramas in India, as well as Indian cinema in South Korea, provides another channel for the two nations to expand and strengthen people-to-people ties.
In recent years, India and South Korea have emerged as the rising giants in Asia. With common interests and concerns directing their foreign policy objectives in a highly unstable international order, it is imperative for the two nations to strengthen their alliance for a better future devoid of uncertainty and insecurity.