► This weekend’s Group of 20 (G20) Summit in New Delhi provided an opportunity for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to build on their expanding bilateral ties and demonstrate to the world that they bring unique perspectives that will help resolve the most vexing global challenges.
► With the escalation of geopolitical divisions and great power competition, like-minded middle power nations like India and South Korea should come together and pool their resources and capabilities for the development of creative solutions that help shape a more peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific.
One Indo-Pacific relationship that has been largely overlooked is that between South Korea and India. These two rising middle powers will increasingly help shape the economic, political, security, and digital landscape of the Indo-Pacific region. The synergy and cooperation between the two countries on pressing issues like the realignment of supply chains for critical minerals and technologies, protecting the maritime commons, bridging the developed and developing economies, and supporting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework will make a critical difference in a region faced with intensifying competition between the United States and China. This weekend’s Group of 20 (G20) Summit in New Delhi provided an opportunity for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to build on their expanding bilateral ties and demonstrate to the world that they bring unique perspectives that will help resolve the most vexing global challenges.
Economic and Geopolitical Imperatives
It is fitting to put a spotlight on progress of India-South Korea ties since this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The India-Korea economic relationship has been deepening for some time, and in 2009 the two nations signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to reduce tariff and non-tariff trade barriers to bilateral trade. By 2021, bilateral trade in goods between New Delhi and Seoul had reached $24 billion, and India was Korea’s seventh-largest export market.
In addition to expanding economic relations, there is a growing geopolitical element to their ties that stems from South Korea’s recognition that it must expand its foreign policy horizons beyond the Korean peninsula and from India’s interest in building links and influence further to its east to challenge China’s goal of becoming the dominant regional power. For several years, South Korea focused most of its foreign and national security policy initiatives on the Korean peninsula and on the major powers—the United States, China, Russia, and Japan—that could impact events on the peninsula. For its part, India since 2014 has been pursuing an Act East Policy (which followed its Look East Policy) to broaden its reach throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Korean efforts to focus more of its foreign policy attention on India has been building. Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in introduced his New Southern Policy in 2017 with the aim of elevating Korea’s ties with India and Southeast Asia to the same level as its other top relationships. Five years later, President Yoon laid out his government’s commitment to increase engagement with Indo-Pacific partners in the Indo-Pacific Strategy released in December 2022. This strategy commits Korea to strengthening its “Special Strategic Partnership” with India. Taking note of India’s prowess in the IT sector and in space technologies, the strategy also commits Korea to upgrading the CEPA with India. New U.S. restrictions on Chinese access to semiconductor technology and the global focus on creating resilient supply chains is motivating South Korea to search for new markets and trade opportunities, and India is an obvious choice.
Aside from economic drivers, there are other motivations behind South Korea’s push for better ties with India. South Korea is looking to India to crack down on North Korean illicit finance schemes, including cryptocurrency heists, that support its weapons of mass destruction programs. Seoul also wants to ensure New Delhi’s continued support for a strong United Nations sanctions enforcement regime against North Korea as well as consistent condemnations of North Korean missile tests, which reached an unprecedented rate last year. Although Seoul does not expect to become a formal member of the Quad any time soon, its strengthening relationship with India will set the stage for closer coordination and interactions with the Quad in the future.
For India’s part, Korea is not only a source of investment and technology for its burgeoning IT and electronics sector, it also can help India deal with security challenges, especially those stemming from a rising China. South Korea can assist India in developing its indigenous defense industrial capacity and in preparing to face potential Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control, like that which occurred during the 2020 Chinese military buildup along their disputed border.
India and Korea can also collaborate to strengthen the ASEAN framework, especially in the face of challenges from China. They can do this by jointly supporting the ASEAN nations in developing standards for infrastructure investment to ensure China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in the region are sustainable and financially viable. They can also look for ways to strengthen cohesion and clarity within ASEAN when it comes to maritime security issues.
As rising middle powers with unique perspectives on the geopolitical shifts currently enveloping the globe, Indian and South Korean voices are important to ensuring the G20 plays a bridging role between the Group of Seven (G7) and the Global South developing nations. India and South Korea were two of eight guest attendees at this year’s G7 in Hiroshima. Part of the thinking behind inviting guest nations like South Korea and India to attend the G7 is that they will help strengthen efforts to preserve a global rules-based order that favors peace, freedom, and sovereignty of nations. While conveying the importance of upholding the rules-based order with the Global South nations, India and South Korea can highlight the concerns of the Global South for the G7 and contribute to developing solutions. Indeed, during President Yoon and Prime Minister Modi’s meeting on the fringes of the G7 meeting—in addition to agreeing to develop bilateral cooperation in defense industry, advanced digital technologies, biohealth, and space—they also pledged to support the development of the Global South countries. Seoul and New Delhi will benefit by joining forces in acting as bridges between the developed and developing world during this era of conflict in Europe and intensifying U.S. competition with China.
Defense Industry Collaboration: One area in which the two sides are investing in new cooperation is in defense industry and production. President Yoon brought with him to the G20 representatives from 11 Korean defense companies to explore deepening defense industrial cooperation with Indian companies. While there, the Korean companies met with India’s Society of Indian Defense Manufacturers (SIDM) to catalyze new projects. Indian Deputy National Security Advisor Vikram Misri visited Seoul in August for the fourth Deputy NSA dialogue aimed at increasing defense industry collaboration in areas like ammunition and small arms manufacturing. And during talks between Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook in March, they agreed to jointly produce and export military equipment and strengthen cooperation in the cyber and space domains. Korean and Indian companies already have joint ventures that produce India’s version of the K9 Thunder artillery gun and are exploring cooperation on utility helicopters, tanks, diesel submarines, lithium batteries for Future Ready Combat Vehicles, and submarines.
Technology Supply Chain Cooperation: As companies seek to de-risk from China, India and South Korea can help one another to become central pillars of new technology supply chains. India’s IT industry has reached $200 billion in annual revenues and over 50 percent of the population is using smart phones. Korea’s Samsung has already built the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer in Noida, India. There is potential for India and Korea to expand cooperation in the IT sector by building on each of their strengths—South Korea in hardware and India in software. Indeed, they are seeking to complete an agreement allowing for easier labor mobility, which would facilitate their technology cooperation. Korea has an aging population and would benefit by allowing Indian workers to work in the Korean technology sector. With its cutting-edge electronics sector, South Korea can invest more in India’s electronics market, which is fueled by a rising middle class and declining electronics prices. Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, during a visit to India in April talked about the importance of Korea-India supply chain cooperation.
Maritime Cooperation: India and South Korea share concerns about China’s increasingly aggressive maritime actions and gray-zone activities in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Both countries condemned China’s recent use of a water canon against a Philippines vessel seeking to resupply the Sierra Madre ship at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
Korea provides ships to the Philippines and Vietnam to counter illegal fishing in their exclusive economic zones, and India is set to provide a small warship to Vietnam to help it protect its waters. South Korea joined the Indian Ocean Rim Association as a dialogue partner in 2018 and could take a more active role in this grouping.
Building Synergy for Stability
The economic and geopolitical imperatives for expanding India-South Korea bilateral ties are clear. While trade and investment ties have steadily grown over the last few decades, there is tremendous scope to improve their economic relationship, especially in the electronics and IT sectors that will put both countries in a stronger position as new global supply chains emerge. With the escalation of geopolitical divisions and great power competition, like-minded middle power nations like India and South Korea should come together and pool their resources and capabilities for the development of creative solutions that help shape a more peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific.