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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Engage and Hedge: Developments in Sino-ROK and India-ROK Relations

by | October 11th, 2012 | 07:00 am

Two items that came into our inbox over the summer are indicative of continuing shifts in the geostrategic and economic landscape. One focused on mil-mil relations between Seoul and Beijing; the other on the rapidly evolving relationship between the ROK and India. In combination, the stories show the complexity of the emerging security architecture as the major players both engage and hedge.

First, the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) has a short issue brief on ROK-PRC defense and mil-mil relations. In 2011, a meeting between the two defense ministers established the ROK-China Defense Strategic Dialogue. The first took place in Seoul in July 2011, the second in Beijing in July 2012. An MOU at the most recent meeting laid the institutional foundations for cooperation, and agreements were reached to establish a hotline (the third after arrangements with the US and Russia), on education (including mutual exchanges of officers for language training) and disaster relief. The real benefits, though, are the ability to exchange views on the regional security environment. The KIDA brief suggests the Chinese got an earful. The value of these mil-mil and defense meetings are unclear, but our bias is that they provide a reality check for both sides and can’t hurt.

The second item was a long piece in The Portuguese Journal of International Affairs on ROK-India relations by Rajaram Panda. . The numbers tell a lot of the story. Bilateral trade between the two stood at $600 million in 1993 and had increased steadily to $12 billion by 2008. But the two countries signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2009 that entered into force in 2010, when Lee Myung-bak paid a breakthrough visit to the country. In 2011, bilateral trade was almost $21 billion and total Korean investment topped $4 billion, making Korea the largest Asian investor in India with a presence in autos, electronics and even steel. According to Panda, the CEPA gives Korean firms advantages over their Chinese and Japanese counterparts and some have focused not only on the domestic market but have used India as an export platform as well.

But economics is not the whole story. Military cooperation began on the industrial side and was pushed along by the first visit of an Indian Defense Minister to Seoul in 2010. A key difference with the defense relationship with China is in the strong Indian appetite for foreign defense-related technologies and hardware, from electronics to ships to aeronautics; India recently purchased eight minesweepers from South Korea at a price tag of $500 million. In July 2011, Seoul also exploited to the opening created by the Bush administration to sign its own nuclear energy technology agreement.

Panda also notes the larger strategic game being played. With alliances and partnerships among the US, Japan, Korea and India, it was inevitable to ask whether some trilateral process might emerge among the three Asian democracies. The countries chose to begin at the track II level with a meeting in June of this year; interestingly, the Indian and Korean nodal points were public think tanks (the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the Institute of Foreign Affairs and International Security (IFANS) respectively) while Japan was represented by the Asia Foundation. This timidity about Chinese reaction did not stop the Japanese participants from airing their concerns. According to Panda, “the Japanese participants emphasized that maintaining safety of navigation for maritime trade and commerce is extremely important for all the three countries and therefore they should enhance their cooperation through joint exercise, patrol and capacity building. Participants shared common concerns on the rapid modernization of Chinese military and activities of the PLA Navies and shared views on how to deal with this challenge.”

As these stories suggest, countries in the region—including the ROK—are both engaging China and hedging their strategic bets, all against a backdrop of rapidly deepening economic ties.  Of particular interest in the ROK-India relationship is how strong defense-industrial interests are coming into play, as India seeks to spend a $100 billion to upgrade its forces over the next five years.