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Fruits of Antony’s visit to South Korea: Defence Ties Strengthen further

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • September 07, 2010

    As a part of India’s ‘Look East policy’, the Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, undertook a two-day visit to South Korea on 2-3 September 2010. Antony was accompanied by a high-level delegation that included Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar, Vice Admiral R.K. Dhowan, Lt. Gen. K.T. Parnaik, DRDO Chief Controller C.K. Prahlada, and Defence Advisor Sundaram Krishna. This was the first visit of an Indian defence minister to South Korea and was at the invitation of his counterpart, Kim Tae-young. This visit was a follow-up on the declaration issued by the two countries during the state visit of the South Korean President to India in January 2010, when they agreed to elevate the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership”.1 The visit of the South Korean president paved the way for expanding bilateral military ties which had till then remained restricted to low-key naval exercises.2

    Unlike in the case of South Korea’s relations with Japan, neither India nor South Korean carry any historical baggage. On the contrary, South Korea cherishes with fond memory the major role India played at the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953 when it deployed a brigade to the UN peacekeeping mission which supervised the armistice that brought the conflict to an end.

    Antony’s visit heralded a new chapter in the history of defence cooperation. The signing of two landmark Memoranda of Understanding will give a huge boost to the strategic partnership. Indeed, Antony’s visit was poised to boost military ties with the East Asian nation amidst a hushed row between India and China over visa denial to an Indian army officer and the presence of Chinese forces in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Beijing denied a visa to the senior Indian army officer because he was serving in Jammu and Kashmir, a state which China considers as disputed.

    Coming against the backdrop of reports of a massive Chinese military build-up in Gilgit-Baltistan, the northern area of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the strategic significance of Antony’s visit to South Korea cannot be overlooked. Originally, Antony’s visit was planned in late 2010 but was advanced to September in view of the urgency to counter the Chinese military build-up. Indeed, India is looking to effectively counter the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy and Antony’s visit to South Korea should be looked at in that larger context. India also has a strategic partnership with Japan and is now strengthening the same with South Korea. China’s alleged complicity in weapon development programmes in Myanmar and Pakistan is beyond doubt. If indeed some kind of “axis” is being formed between China, Pakistan and Myanmar, it would seem legitimate for India to sculpt a similar ‘axis’ with Japan and South Korea as a counterpoise to China’s design. China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy is clearly designed to control maritime interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by building bases or partnering with countries such as Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota) in securing sea routes for maritime commerce. Two PLA Navy warships, Guanhzhou and Caohu, were hosted by Myanmar in the port of Thilawa in August 2010.3

    More recently, there has been a new thrust in India’s Look East policy, under which India has been making efforts to step up ties with South East Asian countries such as Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Understandably enough, India has been focusing on boosting military diplomacy by forging stronger military and strategic ties with foreign nations. The Army chief visited Vietnam in July 2010, the first in 15 years, in a strong signal that India is keen to reach out to the Indo-China state and seek strategic convergence. The upswing in ties started after a landmark visit by Antony in 2007 that laid the ground work for defence cooperation between the two countries. Since May 2010, Antony has visited Oman and Seychelles and is scheduled to visit the US in late September 2010 and again Vietnam in October 2010. The three Services have been engaging the armed forces of the region in various war games and exercises. The armed forces of Singapore have availed training at Indian locations on an annual basis. Indian troops have also engaged in bilateral and multilateral exercises with forces of other countries in the region.

    Apart from seeking defence cooperation, India is keen to tap South Korea’s strong capabilities in ship building technology. Indeed South Korea has marched ahead of Japan in naval ship-building technology and therefore both are seeking synergies in this potential area of cooperation for mutual benefit.4 India has also increased its military, especially maritime, engagement with countries in the Indian Ocean region. The role of the Indian Navy in anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden is well appreciated by many countries in the region whose economic future lies in the smooth conduct of maritime commerce. For both Japan and South Korea, whose dependence on maritime trade off the IOR region is heavy, India’s predominant naval presence in the IOR is a positive factor and cooperation with the Indian Navy becomes inevitable.

    Indeed, the foundation of defence cooperation between the two countries was laid in 2005 when they signed a MoU on cooperation in Defence, Industry and Logistics. Another MoU on cooperation between their Coast Guards was signed in March 2006.5 To take the relationship further, it was expected that a range of issues, including defence cooperation for peace and stability in Asia-Pacific, and bilateral cooperation in Research and Development for manufacture of military equipment figured during discussions between Antony and South Korea’s top leadership. Indeed, many South Korean companies are vying for Indian armed forces’ equipment acquisition programmes such as the basic trainer aircraft and naval warship construction contracts.6

    In view of the above, the two MoUs that were signed during Antony’s visit are path-breaking. The first MoU “envisaged exchange of defence related experience and information, mutual exchange of visits by military personnel and experts including civilian staff associated with defence services, military education and training and conduct of military exercises, exchange of visits of ships and aircraft, as jointly decided between the two countries.”7 The MoU further “envisaged cooperation in humanitarian assistance and international peace keeping activities.”8 The MoU will remain valid for a period of five years with provision for its extension for five more years.

    The second MoU was signed by the Chief Controller of Research and Development of DRDO, Prahlada, and Vice Commissioner, Defence Acquisition and Procurement Agency (DAPA) of South Korea, Kwon Oh Bong. To be operational under the overarching umbrella of India-South Korea Defence Agreement, the MoU aims at identifying futuristic defence technology areas of mutual interests and pursuing R & D works in both the countries.”9 It further envisaged “co-development and co-production of defence products with Indian industry through DRDO.”10 There will be joint Intellectual Property Rights on all the products developed through this system. Some areas of immediate interest which were identified as priority tasks are marine systems, electronics and intelligent systems. As such, the defence industry relationship between the two has countries gone beyond a buyer-seller relationship into transfer of technology, joint production and joint R&D. Antony hoped that “his visit will start a new chapter in our already close relationship.”11

    Antony’s counterpart, Kim, envisaged a win-win scenario for the two countries in a number of areas. Indeed, the relationship between the two countries has expanded much beyond economic and cultural arenas. The signing of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which took effect on 1 January 2010, has already led to impressive growth in bilateral trade, which registered a 70 per cent jump in the first half of 2010. They have agreed to double bilateral trade to $30 billion by 2014 and the trend of the first half of 2010 suggests that the target is easily achievable. Talks on civil nuclear cooperation have already begun in right earnest. Now both countries are expanding their bilateral ties towards seeking common ground on regional and global security issues. Ensuring safety and security of sea lanes of communication, ensuring maritime security and securing vital energy supplies passing through the Indian Ocean are of critical importance.

    Antony acknowledged that the countries of Asia live in a “troubled neighbourhood” and therefore the region is “fragile”. It is a challenge for both India and South Korea to maintain balance and restraint in the face of grave challenges to their security.12 India has already emerged as an integral part of East Asia. As a founding member of the East Asia Summit, India’s stand on the emerging architecture in East Asia is that it should be open and inclusive and therefore in common agreement with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ decision to welcome the US and Russia into its fold. In view of the convergence of interests between India and South Korea, they are positioning themselves to work closely in the emerging architecture, which is still in a nascent stage of evolution.

    Defence experts in both countries have high expectations from Antony’s visit, especially after the highly successfully official visit of the External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna in June 2010. During Antony’s visit, South Korea’s Defence Minister Kim announced the US-South Korean joint military drill to be held from 5 to 9 September 2010. This five-day naval training could fuel tensions with the North and anger China, notwithstanding the fact this anti-submarine exercise will be on a lower scale than previous drills that included a US aircraft carrier. As against China’s claim over the whole of South China Sea, India has openly declared that the South China Sea should remain open for international navigation,13 which is likely to provide common ground for both India and South Korea to cooperate on security matters. It seems likely that in the coming years, the India-South Korea bilateral relationship will be substantially upgraded on the cultural, political, and economic and security/strategic realms.

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