By Dr Bhushan Kumar and Sangeeta Yadav
India-South Korea strategic relationship: Brief introduction: Paradigm shift in the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific has resulted in strategic policy making by many regional powers. Since May 2015, India – South Korea, officially known as Republic of Korea (RoK), bilateral relationship has been upgraded to a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ which gave synergy to have stronger ties in the field of defence. Another two milestones one each from both India and South Korea — India’s “Act East Policy (AEP)” and Korea’s “New Southern Policy (NSP)” have provided a high level of strategic interactions between both the nations. Under ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ both nations looking for more defence ties to bolster the relationship.
Why India and Korea should have more defence ties?
India and Korea looking for a strong strategic relationship that will reduce the security dependence on the big powers like China and the US. India for its defence and security requirement has largely been dependent upon major arms suppliers from Russia, US and Israel. At the same time, India is looking for other defence suppliers because of over-dependency on the traditional allies and trade war between big powers, and so is the reason India looks for cooperation with fast-track defence deals with like-minded countries like South Korea. India is in search of similar defence equipment which is as efficient as East Asian countries like China specially in the backdrop of recent Sino-Indian border standoff at Galwan valley in Eastern Ladakh. South Korea and China’s defence equipment have similar scientific advancements. During the faceoff, India and China’s heavy artillery and other military equipment moved along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Galwan valley. India requires advanced military defence technology like China, and the Republic of Korea can fulfill India’s need that can boost Indian Army’s capabilities on the border. The South Korean advance defence arms supply to India can provide new synergy in India-Korea strategic partnership.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh opened a new roadmap for bilateral cooperation in arms industries in the mid of 2020. The then South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and Rajnath Singh held talks in New Delhi where they pledged closer defense industry cooperation.
India-RoK defence cooperation, and recent developments of International arms transfers
Traditionally, India’s arms import has been dependent upon the Russian suppliers. However, a recent global trend shows Russian arms exports, which accounted for 20 per cent of all exports of major arms in 2016–20, dropped by 22 per cent. The bulk around 90 per cent of this decrease was attributable to a 53 per cent fall in its arms exports to India.
Exporters of major arms and their main recipients (2016-20)
There is a notable development which shows India’s arms import has been decreased by 33 per cent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. The reason behind drop in India’s arms imports is its complex procurement processes combined with an attempt to reduce its dependence on Russian defence equipment. India is planning large-scale arms imports in the coming years from outside its traditional suppliers. Therefore, it’s a good opportunity for a country like South Korea to increase its arms export to India. A recent survey conducted by SIPRI shows South Korea’s arms exports were 210 per cent higher in 2016–20 than in 2011–15.
Changes in volume of major arms exports by the 10 largest exporters between 2011–15 and 2016–20:
India-Korea Defence Agreements
Under India-Korea Special Strategic Partnership, the South Korean defence industry has ambitious plan to sell US$2.6 billion worth of anti-aircraft artillery. The Korean defence companies are keen to the Indian arms market which is second largest arms importer in the world. Seoul administration also looking for more arms deals to improve its market share in India. From the Korean side the contract involves exporting 104 Biho systems, 97 ammunition carriers, 39 command vehicles, 4,928 missiles, and 172,260 rounds of ammunition, bringing the contracts’ total value to between 2.5 trillion won and 3 trillion won.
In recent years defence collaboration between India and Korea was reflected in K9 Vajra-T guns, which is a US$720-million deal between Indian company Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin (HTW). Another deal is K9 Vajra-T, which is a self-propelled howitzer. The total weight of K-9 Vajra-T is 50 tonnes and can fire 47kg bombs at the targets 54 km away. Korean firms are also building minesweepers and ‘Biho’ self-propelled anti-aircraft defence system, which is under the ‘Make in India’ policy.
The rise of Korea’s arms supplier to India is one of the important strategic deals in the Asia Pacific region. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had announced US$3 billion contract for Self Propelled Air Defence Gun Missile System (SPAD-GMS). The SPAD-GMS contract has created fierce competition between Korean arms maker Hanwha Defence and its Russian competitor. India has planned to reduce the dependence on Russian arms and the SPAD-GMS deal was given to South Korean company Hanwha Defense. But, following the Russian objection of shortlisting the South Korean company, the decision of the SPAD-GMS project is under consideration, which defines the future India-Korea Strategic Partnership.
This controversy erupted on SPAD-GMS deal has also threatened the export of K30 Biho by the Korean government and Hanwha. The Biho has the capability of short-range anti-aircraft artillery and shooting down enemy planes and drones at low altitudes. In DefExpo 2020, South Korea promoted Biho and a statement was issued from Korean side stating: “We are awaiting the results, since the Biho was the only system that satisfied the performance requirements set by India, and agreements were reached between both countries’ ministers.”
India, South Korea Defence Ministers Explore Avenues to Strengthen Long-standing Bilateral Defence Partnership
New Delhi. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of Defence of Republic of Korea (RoK) Suh Wook successfully concluded their bilateral talks on defence cooperation in New Delhi on March 26.
The defence and security engagements between India and RoK have grown exponentially over the last few years. The latest talks explored new domains of bilateral defence cooperation and avenues to strengthen the long-standing bilateral defence partnership.
The two leaders acknowledged that the bilateral defence cooperation has broadened significantly in scale and scope across Tri-Service as well as agencies dealing with defence technology and industry. Both the countries have also found common ground on several multilateral fora and engagements.
Both the Ministers exchanged views on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the defence and security engagements as well as best practices followed by the Armed Forces of the two nations. During the talks Singh also lauded stellar contribution of RoK in the pandemic mitigation efforts.
They reaffirmed their support to multilateral initiatives to promote lasting peace and stability in the region and beyond. As brought out by the Defence Minister during interaction with his South Korean counterpart, the bilateral relations between both the countries are set to grow further and the meeting between them will give it the necessary impetus to take it to the next level.
The Ministers also expressed satisfaction over the commitment exhibited by diverse agencies of both countries to sustain structured annual dialogues at various levels of leadership through virtual means when travel and physical engagements became increasingly challenging during the ongoing pandemic. This has kept up the momentum of bilateral defence engagements. The Armed Forces of both countries hope to approach 2021 with renewed confidence.
Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General MM Naravane, Secretary (Defence Production) Raj Kumar and Secretary Department of Defence R&D and Chairman Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Dr G Satheesh Reddy formed part of the Indian delegation during the talks.
Before the bilateral delegation level talks, Rajnath Singh and Suh Wook jointly inaugurated the India-Korea Friendship Park in a ceremony to mark the occasion at Delhi Cantonment. The park is a symbol of close relations between both the countries and acknowledges the contribution of the Indian Army’s Medical Mission during the Korean War.
The presence of distinguished guests from the Korean War Veterans Association during the inauguration ceremony was an acknowledgement of the event. Both the Ministers planted a sapling each to mark the momentous occasion. Suh Wook felicitated Korean War Veterans Association of India General Secretary Anil Malhotra on the occasion.
Problem with India-Korea defence cooperation
India is the second-largest arms importer in the world and it accounts for 9.5 per cent of the total global share after Saudi Arabia (11 per cent). South Korea was the ninth-largest arms exporter in 2016–20 with a 2.7 per cent of the total global share. However, India’s import from South Korea is far lagging behind Russia (49 per cent), France (18 per cent), and Israel (13 per cent). India and the Korean government can work together to enhance the arms cooperation between both the nations. India and Korea’s arms deal are suffering from few challenges like India’s inability to leave its traditional arms supplier and bureaucratic limitations.
Pressure from traditional allies at India’s defence deals
From the Cold war era, India has been dependent on Russian arms imports. Dominated Russian lobby is creating a barrier for new defence partners like Korea. The delay of the SPAD-GMS deal between India and Korea is one of the prime examples that show dominated Russian lobby inside the Indian defence deal. Indian side must choose the rational way of defence deal to have better and modern technology that fulfills the interest of its armed forces.
The success story of the India-Korea defence partnership has been slowed down because of bureaucratic challenges to understand the Korean defence industries. India must understand what kind of Korean defence products are good to use and project its strategic positioning through Indian Armed Forces. From the Korean side also, it is necessary to understand India’s stronger positioning in the space sector. There is also a need of stronger bureaucratic systems which can help in strengthening India-Korea defence cooperation.
There is a growing synergy and complementarities between South Korea’s New Southern Policy and India’s Act East Policy. Both policies aim to look for a more strategic partnership. The recent high-profile visits from both sides have boosted India-Korea defence cooperation. In 2020, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh intensified the India-Korea bilateral and strategic relationship at both the macro and micro levels. The agreements signed during the visits raised our hope to see more and more collaborations in the future between the two countries. India and Korea need to be more aggressive on defence deals to become dominated strategic partners in the Asia Pacific.
–The author is a Lecturer at Department of Political Science and International Relations, Kookmin University, South Korea and the co-author is a strategic affairs expert presented her papers at various international forums