New Delhi, Jan. 13: South Korea wants to elevate its defence partnership with India through a new pact, Seoul has told New Delhi ahead of a visit this Wednesday by President Park Geun-hye that Tokyo and Beijing will closely follow.
But a key difference in defence policy aims between the nations may prevent an early breakthrough on the agreement that could upgrade South Korea’s status as an Indian strategic partner to just a notch below that of Russia and Israel, senior government officials said.
India and South Korea had inked two pacts in 2010 to facilitate bilateral visits of top military commanders and to pursue joint defence research.
But Seoul, increasingly threatened by muscular postures adopted by China and Japan in recent months, is keen to sign a new “defence security agreement” with India, a South Korean diplomat confirmed.
The proposal from South Korea has presented India an opportunity to build on its strategic relations with key Asia-Pacific nations that has emerged a key theatre of global geo-strategic forays since the US announced its “pivot” to the region in June 2012.
The pact, officials said, could pave the way for the purchase of lethal weapons and vessels that South Korea has traditionally been reticent to sell to India.
But the pact proposed by the South Koreans is limited by its focus on India as a buyer, rather than collaborative research and investments in India’s defence sector, the officials said.
“We want them to invest in India, including in the defence sector, and to partner us in joint research, not just sell us stuff — and that will be a key thrust of our talks during President Park’s visit,” an official said.
New Delhi will also try to persuade Seoul to nudge its electronics giants to invest along the Bangalore Mysore Industrial Corridor (BMIC), fast shaping up as one of India’s key manufacturing highways, during Park’s visit, the officials said. Park will travel to Bangalore after delegation-level talks in New Delhi.
India will cite the environment ministry’s recent five-year clearance to Posco’s Odisha plant as an example of its intent to facilitate similar South Korean investments, the officials said. “We’re counting on South Korean investments to develop eight major towns along the BMIC,” another official said.
President Pranab Mukherjee will host a luncheon banquet for Park on Thursday, and the South Korean leader — the first woman President of her country — will also meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vice-President Hamid Ansari and foreign minister Salman Khurshid that day.
Like many other countries in East and Southeast Asia, South Korea views India as a counterbalance to the rising tensions in its neighbourhood as China and Japan joust for military and strategic superiority.
But unlike many of these nations like Vietnam and the Philippines, South Korea’s concerns are not restricted to China’s assertiveness over territories Beijing hasn’t held for several decades.
Seoul does have territorial disputes with China, but it also holds deep-seated distrust for Tokyo because of alleged war crimes committed against Koreans by the Japanese during the Second World War.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister who has demonstratively visited controversial war shrines and is expected in India as the chief guest for Republic Day celebrations later this month, has upset the South Koreans as much as he has irked the Chinese.
“The recognition in the region that India can play a key role in ensuring peace, security and stability in the region is a major achievement for us,” an official said. “But there’s a lot more to do and President Park’s visit is a key step in that direction.”