August 26, 2018

Is India leaning toward the fifth axis of South Korea's diplomacy?

The following interview originally appeared in The Korea Times on 26 August 2018. 

Q: How would you sum up the Indian foreign policy?
A: It is hard to sum up India's complex foreign engagements in a few words, but most of India's objectives can be placed in five broad categories. One: Using foreign policy to accelerate India's domestic development, including through sourcing investment and technology, improved standards, diaspora outreach, security cooperation, and other means. Two: Maintaining a stable periphery by improving neighbourhood connectivity and regional integration. For a variety of reasons, this process is often frustrating. Three: India's Act East Policy is meant to preserve a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region in light of China's rise. A fourth goal is countering terrorism and instability to India's west, including through some difficult diplomacy with Pakistan and efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. And five, creating space in forums of global governance so that India's interests can be adequately represented on such issues as climate change, monetary coordination, institutional lending, international security and nuclear non-proliferation. This extends to involvement at such institutions as the United Nations, the G20, the East Asia Summit and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Q: How do you evaluate India-China relations?
A: India-China relations are complex but consist of four defining elements. Two have traditionally been contentious. On bilateral security, the two countries have a long-standing boundary dispute, and we have witnessed occasional military standoffs along the border. Second, on regional security, India has always had concerns about Chinese influence in its near abroad and the Indian Ocean region, and these have only increased with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has boycotted BRI, which it sees as traversing territory disputed between India and Pakistan and thus an affront to its sovereignty. More importantly, India sees China's BRI financing as unsustainable, creating conditions for debt to be leveraged for strategic purposes. 

Two other areas of India-China relations have traditionally been more cooperative. Bilateral trade and economic relations have improved significantly since 2000, but the trade deficit has widened in China's favor, and Indian businesses are increasingly frustrated with the lack of market opportunities there. 

On global governance, India and China traditionally cooperated on various issues such as climate change and at the U.N., BRICS and the AIIB, but there have been growing differences, in part due to China's self-perception as a power on par with the United States. China has thus not supported India's membership at the U.N. Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Consequently, all four elements of India-China relations have become more difficult over the past five years or so. While this year has seen some tactical efforts at managing differences, the longer-run trends suggest a much more competitive and contentious relationship between two countries with billion-plus populations.

Q: Do you consider the Indo-Pacific strategy substantial?
A: The Indo-Pacific has entered the official strategic vocabulary of several countries ― including India ― in recent years. Essentially, it implies at least three things: that the Indian and Pacific oceans are part of a single strategic space; that the maritime domain is strategically and economically significant, and (indirectly) that India plays an important role in the regional balance of power as the largest economy and military in the Indian Ocean region. These are the common strands to the use of the term Indo-Pacific by India, the United States, Japan, Australia, and others. However, while the United States and Japan have their own "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategies, India views the Indo-Pacific not as a strategy, but as a space in which its Act East Policy will be implemented. 

In essence, this means securing the Indian Ocean, deepening connectivity with Southeast Asia, improving security partnerships with the United States, Japan and others who have shared concerns about China's rise, and managing an increasingly difficult relationship with Beijing. To this extent, the Indian Navy and Indian aid have been playing a more active role in the Indian Ocean, India has increased its diplomatic activity and security relations with ASEAN (including hosting all 10 leaders in Delhi this year), and has also made headway with the United States, Japan, and Australia. If there is a weakness, it has been in India's insufficient economic integration with the region as a whole.

Q: What do you think of Korea's New Southern Policy?
A: South Korea has for many years punched above its weight on economic matters and has a potent military. However, it has been preoccupied with strategic concerns on the Korean Peninsula, resulting in a bit of a mismatch between its capabilities and its influence in the broader region. Insofar as the New Southern Policy marks a willingness to engage strategically with that wider region, it is a very welcome sign. President Moon Jae-In's visit to India earlier this year was a step in the right direction.

Q: Would you share your thoughts on the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, including the denuclearization?
A: I'm no expert on Korean Peninsula issues, but have naturally been following developments there for many years. India had historically played a very active role on the Korean Peninsula, including through the provision of military aid during the Korean War under a United Nations banner and in the repatriation of prisoners of war in the 1950s. India has since maintained diplomatic ties with both Seoul and Pyongyang, although economically, politically and in terms of values, India shares much more in common with the Republic of Korea than with the DPRK. Recently, while welcoming diplomatic efforts between the two sides, New Delhi has become more overtly critical of the North's development of nuclear and missile technology and has participated in international sanctions against Pyongyang.

Q: Please suggest the direction for India-Korea relations to be developed to another level.
A: Economically, relations are quite strong. Korean companies have performed well in the Indian market and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) was signed in 2009, although trade could still improve. In terms of security, relations have been taking off from a relatively low base. The fact that Korea was one of the first overseas destinations of the previous Indian defence minister is indicative of that fact. Two areas, however, are deserving of much greater attention. One is improving people-to-people ties and contacts. This would mean increasing the incentives and opportunities for the exchange of tourists, students, businesspeople and other visitors. Two, there is scope for improving the strategic component of the relationship by sharing lessons learned. After all, both India and the Republic of Korea are involved in difficult negotiations with nuclear-armed neighbors whose leaderships are not always interested in engagement. Yet there have been few efforts by New Delhi and Seoul to systematically learn from each other's experiences. In these domains, India-Korea relations stand to improve tremendously.