THIS year we had South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak as our Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations and many must have wondered why he was chosen. There is, of course, always a good reason. It is not that the External Affairs Ministry picks up a celebrity at random. One might as well ask why is it that in 1991 we chose President Moumoon Abdul Gayoom of Maldives for the honour, or, in 1994 Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore. They were not powerful states in the accepted sense of the term. In 1995 we invited President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and in 1997 Prime Minister Basdeo Panday of Trinidad and Tobago.
For that matter, in 2002 we invited Cassam Uteem of Mauritius and in 2009 President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhistan. What sense does this choice convey? National interest, naturally.
President Nazarbayev was invited because Kazakhistan is one of the largest producers of uranium which India so desperately needed. India signed a civil nuclear deal with Kazakhistan during Nazarbayev’s visit and the first Uranium consignment was delivered to India soon after. In 2000, we had President Olusengun Obasanjo of Nigeria as our guest. As a young military officer, Obasanjo had reluctantly come to India for military training. But once he came, he literally fell in love with the country. India needed a friend in West Africa and Nigeria nicely filled the bill. Or take the instance of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil who was invited in 2004. India was anxious to build good trade relations with Brazil and had become a partner of IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) club. As a result trade with Brazil crossed the $ one billion mark for the first time and this is expected to increase at a steady pace.
The point is that all round the world India has been looking for friends which once it had in large numbers during the Non-Aligned Movement which, following the end of the Cold War, had slowly died a natural death. Republic Day celebrations inevitably provide India with an excellent occasion to express its pleasure or goodwill or growing faith in a nation near and far away. It is also an occasion to express one’s thanks for a nation that has been helpful. In 2008, India invited President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. India and France had just finalised a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement, even as Delhi awaited the conclusion of the Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Currently India has reason to be both friendly and grateful towards South Korea. India has in recent years developed close political and economic ties with Seoul. Not many would know that more than 300 Korean companies including Samsung, Hyundai and LG have established their presence in India. Their total trade was worth $ 16 billion in 2008. In August 2009, India and South Africa signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, an overarching document which includes good and services. South Korea is, of course, close to the United States. Indeed, South Korea it was which give its support to the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. When the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) met in Vienna to consider lifting sanctions against India, it was Seoul which backed New Delhi all the way.
Presently India wants reactors for its nuclear power plants from South Korea. New Delhi is also looking to Seoul to get state-of-the art dual technology products which neither the United States nor Japan are willing to sell. It is said that South Korea has an advance hardware and space technology which could compliment India’s own software expertise. In any event if India wants friends in the Far East, South Korea would be an ideal country to make friends with, considering that Pakistan has fruitful relations with North Korea.
For India and South Korea to become friends is a win-win situation. South Korea wants to raise its political profile across the world and India would make a perfect partner, especially in the context of a rising and greedy China, a politically uncertain Japan and the United States, a seemingly declining Super Power. South Korea may not have been very much in the news but for a nation with around a population of 45 million, it is 13th largest economy in the world, with the sixth largest armed forces that indicates its security concerns. It has substantiated reputation as a builder of commercial ships and that is precisely one of India’s current needs: ship-building.
In some ways, South Korea is like Singapore. Its intense sense of nationalism, along with a strong streak of competitiveness, makes it chary of both Japan and China, its immediate neighbours. Seoul could, in such circumstances easily be friends with Delhi which has a good reputation for respecting the independence and sovereignty of other nations. India can therefore freely support South Korea’s foreign policy ambitions. As a major importer of natural resources and as a leading exporter of manufactured goods South Korea has a major stake in protecting the sea lines of communication both in South China Sea and the India Ocean. China has pretensions to be the leading protector of the sea lines. South Korea and India together can take a lead in this regard to send a message to Beijing that they too are aware of their responsibilities. It would, of course, involve mutual maritime support, but that should not be a problem.
In this context, Singapore, too, has a role to play. With India anxious to pursue its ‘Look East’ policy, it cannot hope to find a more accommodative and cooperative friend than South Korea. Courting it makes geopolitical sense. In all this there may not be any place for personal matter but it is intriguing to learn that South Korea’s First Lady, Kim Yoon-ok, is a descendant of an Ayodhya Princess who supposedly left India’s shores over two thousand years ago to go to Korea and there marry a Korean prince. It speaks highly not only of Indian catholic-city in the matter of human relations but its strong naval antecedents that could facilitate the journey of an Indian lady with royal connections all the way to distant Korea. Be that as it may, India’s aim presently should be to respond to South Korea’s nuclear aspirations and cooperate with it in the development of advanced fuel cycle facilities under full international safe-guards.