South Korean President Moon Jae In’s maiden visit to India (8-11 July) is being taken on a positive note as it is anticipated that meeting between the two strong leaders’ and their abiding commitment would further concretize Act East and Southern Policy.
Both the countries have been enjoying historical and civilizational relations for the last 2,000 years. Currently, India is a major country with a lot of market potential, whereas, on the other hand, South Korea’s technological expertise, innovation, and capital, thus, having congruencies and potentials in the bilateral and regional cooperation. However, the full potential of economic relations yet has not been reached coinciding with their size and scale of economies. It is anticipated that the current visit of President Moon would heighten the bilateral and regional cooperation as both countries are playing a important role in the ASEAN. In this background, it is believed that Act East Policy would reach to the moon.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (10 May 2017) was in India for his maiden four-day state visit to India (July 8-11). As per the report of the Indian External Affairs Ministry, PM Modi and President Moon had deliberated on bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interests. Whereas on the other hand, a spokesperson in Moon’s office in Seoul had said that President Moon and PM Modi had focused on expanding the “future-oriented cooperation” between the two countries.
Act East Policy and New Southern Policy
The Look East Policy (LEP) was launched by the PM P.V. Narasimha Rao (21 June 1991–16 May 1996) and the same was rechristened as “Act East Policy” (AEP) under the incumbent PM Modi in 2014. If we compare the rationales of both the policies (Southern Policy and Look East Policy), it seems that China’s assertive strategic forays in the Asia-Pacific were remained one of the main drivers. The main focus of the AEP is 3 Cs i.e., commerce, connectivity and culture cooperation. It is perceived that it would enhance the geopolitical and geo-economic profile of India in Southeast and Northeast Asian countries.
With the taking over the office, South Korean President Moon Jae-In (10 May 2017), had decided to improve relations with major powers like the US, China, Russia and including India. Moreover, the changing geopolitical dynamics in the Korean peninsula had further obligated the President to reorient its foreign policy towards the ASEAN and India. Under this move the “ Southern Policy” was launched in November 2017. After examining the rationale and scope of both the policies in context of South Korea and India , it is crystal clear that these two policies are multi-dimensional and multipronged policies, which focused on heightening the bilateral, regional and geopolitical cooperation.
To translate this policy into reality, President Moon has dispatched his special envoy to ASEAN, Australia, and India. Following the visit, an international conference on ASEAN-South Korea was organized in Seoul. A new ASEAN Culture House was opened in Busan. As part of this policy, President Moon has undertaken the first foreign visit to some Southeast Asian countries to roll out of this policy.
It has been argued that the main focus of the New Southern Policy is to balance and lessen the undue dependence on the external partners such as the US, China, Japan, and Russia.
Alex Ward has argued (Vox,17 August 2017 ) that, “Moon wants to make South Korea more self-sufficient and less reliant on America.” Economically, the US is becoming a less reliable partner given Trump’s unpredictable and protectionist policy. Moreover, a rebuttal of Asia Pivot Policy has further enhanced security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region in general and for South Korea in particular. The same case goes with China and Japan. The issue of Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defence (THAAD) deployment has frozen the Sino-ROK relations. The historical legacies still remains one of the major bilateral irritants between Japan and ROK. Therefore, under this policy, President Moon wanted to go by the a balanced approach by rejuvenating its bilateral relations with countries like ASEAN, India, and Australia.
On the other hand, India has established engagements with the Southeast Asian countries under its Look East Policy. India’s engagement with ASEAN through various mechanisms like sectoral dialogues partnership (1992), sectoral dialogues partnership (1995), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Membership (1996), has provided it an important place not only in the Southeast Asian region, rather the whole Indo-Pacific region. The membership at the ASEAN Summit (2012) level partnership further enhanced the strategic profile of India in the regions. During the first-ever Commemorative Summit of India and ASEAN, both the sides had decided to enhance their relations to the strategic partnership level. The year 2017 was as marked as the five years of the strategic partnership between India and ASEAN. India has also a Free Trade Agreement signed with the ASEAN in 2009 (Bangkok), covering the trades in goods. Another FTA was signed in 2015 (Delhi) in which services and investment have been covered.
The history of Indo-South Korea relations goes back to 2,000 years. However, the current bilateral relations have been formalized in 1973. In order to enhance the economic cooperation, several mechanisms like Agreement on Trade Promotion and Economic and Technological Co-operation (1974); Agreement on Co-operation in Science & Technology (1976); Convention on Double Taxation Avoidance (1985); and Bilateral Investment Promotion/Protection Agreement (1996) have been put in place. Under these mechanisms, the trade between the two countries has been increased significantly by reaching to US$ 20.5 bn (2011) from US$ 530 million (1992-1993). During the visit of PM Manmohan Singh to South Korea, the bilateral trade target was set at US$ 40 billion by 2015. However, instead of reaching the target, the same had shown the declining trends i.e., US$ 18.13 billion ( 2014-15); US$ 16.56 billion (2015-16): US$ 16.82 billion (2016-17).
Act East Policy Reach for the Moon
Southeast and Northeast Asian countries are the main pivots of India’s LEP. The scope of the same was multiplied in 2014, covering more geographical and a geopolitical area rechristening it as Act East Policy (AEP). Under this policy, countries like South Korea, Japan, and Australia have been given an important place. The 3Cs i.e., commerce, connectivity, and culture made the main focuses of the policy.
On the other hand, ASEAN has also been given important place in South Korea’s Southern Policy launched, which was launched in September 2017. This policy was rolled out aiming at boosting South Korea’s bilateral and regional cooperation with the ASEAN. The most important objective of the same is to lessen its reliance on the traditional trading partners such as China and the US.
With the introduction of LPG in the 1990s, ROK has started getting engaged with the ASEAN. The ASEAN has reciprocated very positively by providing accommodation and get engaged the same as SDP (1989); FDP (1991) and Summit Level Partnership (1997). Additionally, ASEAN and ROK have been engaged through higher level institutional engagements like ASEAN-ROK Summit, ASEAN-ROK Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM)-Korea Consultation, ASEAN-ROK Dialogue, ASEAN-ROK Joint Cooperation Committee and Mekong-ROK Foreign Ministers’ Meeting etc.
Under the visionary leadership of President Moon Jae-In, once again the ASEAN has been put in the radar’s of its strategic and geopolitical calculations under the under the policy framework “Southern Policy”. Moreover, the recently changing geopolitical dynamics had obligated President Moon to reinvigorate bilateral and regional cooperation with the ASEAN, India, and Australia. This argument is also corroborated by the statement of ROK Trade Minister (Kim Hyun-Chong), in which he perceived that the Southern Policy would further heighten the country’s relationship with India and ASEAN.
It is expected that the maiden visit of the South Korean President Moon would open new avenues in the economic cooperation. South Korea has already been sharing a strong economic partnership in several Indian flagship projects like ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’, ‘Digital India’, ‘Start-Up India’ etc. ROK has also extended a credit line of US$ 10 billion for the infrastructure development in India. In order to facilitate economic and financial engagements with ROK, India has set up a ‘Korea Plus’.
Along with the issue of the joint statement, 11 MoUs were signed between the two countries including the extending bilateral cooperation in biotechnology, bioeconomics, ICT, and Telecommunications. Enhancement of economic cooperation and trade are remained the core agenda of the PM Modi and President Moon’s meeting, focusing on investment, promotion of joint ventures, exploiting of existing opportunities between the two economies etc. The two countries had signed a statement on Early Harvest Package, in order to conclude the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) as soon as possible. Also, they have committed to achieving the bilateral trade target of US $50 billion in the next 12 years.
Security concerns have also been figured prominently during the meeting between these two leaders. The relations between both the countries have already been enhanced to the strategic partnership level during the incumbent PM Modi’s visit in 2015. Security related threats particularly emanating from radicalism, violent extremism and terrorism including the peace and prosperity of the region remained the main issues of the bilateral talk. Both countries resolved to combat the terrorism at the bilateral, regional and global level through the coordinated and concerted efforts. India had played a crucial role in the Korean peninsula peace even during the Korean wars (1950-53). Presently, both countries have been sharing concerns over the nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula. In this backdrop, both countries have expressed their pledge to put joint efforts to check the same and curb the weapons delivery to the terrorists and non-state actors.
South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia’s economic model have remained the main driver for India’s Look East Policy i.e., AEP. Under this policy, India and South Korea have been engaged very constructively with the ASEAN as well. The AEP has reciprocated very positively by South Korea as well as ASEAN countries. When this policy was launched, at that point of time, the economic cooperation (trade) was at the lowest ebb i.e., less than US$ 1billion. Now, the trade with ASEAN and South Korea are stood at US$ 70 bn and US$ 20 bn respectively (2018). The institutional engagements between India and South Korea including ASEAN show that Act East has remained successful in achieving its objectives like political, economic and security cooperation with South Korea and the ASEAN.
Moon’s visit to India comes to an end on 11 July at a positive note. President Moon said, “PM Modi’s ‘Act East Policy’ has importance to co-operation to Korea & I am pressing ahead with ‘New Southern Policy’ that makes India Korea’s key partner for cooperation.” Cooperation for ‘3P Plus’ (people, prosperity, and peace) has become the new mantra of President Moon’s India Policy.
Korean brands are households in India. Right now, about 500 companies are working in India. Many companies are waiting to enter India. In the backdrop of changing dynamics in the Korean Peninsula, ROK’s strategically enervated relations with China, Japan, Russia, US, it is anticipated that Act East Policy would become more strengthened. However, if one compares the trade between ROK and China with India, the size and status of the latter’s trade and investment still seem at the lowest ebb. Similarly, the new geopolitical construct Indo-Pacific is becoming more dynamic, where again the strategic bilateral cooperation is below the potential.
Given the untapped market on part of India and technological expertise, innovation, and capital on part of South Korea had created potential for economic and strategic cooperation. The visit of Moon has created substantial amount of good will and cordial environment. In the coming time, these attributes would become strength of the Act East Policy. These strengths would further facilitate the Act Eat Policy to reach the moon bilaterally and regionally.
*Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India.