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India and Korea: A Special Strategic Partnership (Article for Korea Herald Jan 2016)

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India and Korea: A Special Strategic Partnership

(Article for Korea Herald Jan 2016)

On my first morning in Seoul—a holiday last April—I was jolted awake by the piercing voice of a small boy, calling out to his father in Korean. What woke me with a start and a terrible sense of floating in delirium was not his admittedly-impressive lungs, but that he was calling for his “Appa”! For in South India, the words for mother and father are the same as those in Korean: “Omma” and “Appa”.

Once I sorted out my locational anxiety about whether I was in Chennai or Seoul, I have since discovered that in the long courseof Asian civilization, the relationship between Indian and Korean people has an unusually-long history. Although more research is needed, there is already ample evidence of ties connecting us through religion, philosophy, trade and, in the celebrated wedding of King Kim Suro and Queen Suriratna of Ayodhya in AD 48, one of the first multi-cultural marriages in the Korean peninsula.

The high tide and low ebb of empire in East and South Asia may have both built and undermined historical connectivity between us, but today, decades after our newly-independent nations emerged from war and colonialism, our bilateral ties are displaying the potential they have long promised. This is especially so as currents of sustained economic growth washed their way to India’s coastline, beginning in the mid-1990s, when Korean firms led by conglomerates such as Hyundai Motors, Samsung and LG became pioneers not only from Korea, but among the world’s major companies, to manufacture and even export out of India. The tide has become stronger since the election of our current Government, led by Prime Minister Modi. Growth rates have picked up steadily since 2014, and are poised to cross the current 7.5% mark, to touch 8% in the year ahead. That makes India not only the fastest-growing large emerging economy, but also a rare bright spot in a largely-gloomy global scenario.

That there would be a resurgence of interest in India in the two years since the 2014 national elections in India was to be expected, but in few other countries should there be as much of a sense of the limitlessness of possibility for partnerships as in Korea. This is not based on the ‘localitis’ of a diplomat: it stems from the long-held view of no less than Prime Minister Modi himself. Korean friends will have read his statements during his State Visit last May, in which he recalled that eight years ago, as Chief Minister of Gujarat State, he had described the miracle on the Han River as one of his inspirations. He had also cited Korea as a priority country for India in building a mutually-beneficial partnership.

Interestingly, the Prime Minister’s view is broadly shared by political parties across the spectrum. To put it differently: one of the few subjects of bipartisan unanimity in India’s vibrant political debate is the recognition of the vast vistas of complementarity between Korean and Indian capacities. After all, either of us can find other partners in each sector of opportunity, but from an Indian perspective, there are very few countries other than Korea that fit the bill more or less across all sectors of possibility.

Consider the following examples. As India moves to sustain high speed economic growth, it will need to focus on three specific targets: massive doses of investment to create the state-of-the-art infrastructure that a modern economy needs; wide scale expansion of manufacturing industry ranging from shipbuilding, electronics, chemicals, defense products and automotives, to light industries including food processing, textiles and garments; and finally, in raising funds to sustain this explosion of construction and manufacturing, including through sustainable, long-term yielding financial products. In other words, Korea is ideally suited to partner our Government’s flagship programmes, including “Make in India”, “Digital India”, “Clean India” and “Skill India”.

Anyone familiar with Korean capacities would see that our list of priorities seems tailor-made for Korean capacities. It may not be the only country with the most to offer in each segment, but it is certainly one of the few countries with much to offer—and as much to benefit—in all segments

Better still, because Indian science and technology, and industry, have also developed to world-standards in several areas, partnerships can be mutually-beneficial, with the potential to create world-leading items of excellence. Some of this is already underway, in recognition of India’s strong skillsets in information technology, which made it the back-office of the world. Take for instance the example of Hyundai Motors and Samsung Electronics, who have several thousand Indian techies employed at their global R&D centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore respectively.

New and emerging areas of partnership could include space technologies, where India is one of the world’s most cost-effective providers of satellite launch services for geostationary orbit. They could also include component manufacture for electronics, in recognition of the fact that the Indian market for electronics (handphones, computers etc) alone is set to grow to US$ 400 bn in by the end of this decade. Even in shipbuilding, a key manufacturing sector that has been hardest hit by the global downturn in demand for bulk commodities, orders for ship construction remain at unprecedented highs in India, as our country steps up as a net provider of security in the maritime domain.

And so in the year ahead, we see significant opportunity for accelerating the India-Korea partnership across each sector of opportunity. The year has begun well, with the biggest-ever standalone India-Korea business dialogue jointly organized on January 14-15, 2016, in New Delhi, by the Chosun media group in partnership with KOTRA and India’s CII. Over 130 Korean businesspersons were present, including the top tier of Korea’s corporate leadership from Hyundai Motors, Lotte, LG, Doosan, Kumho-Asiana, the Chosun group, Samsung, OCI, KEPCO, Korea EXIM, KITA and so on.  They were joined by senior Korean political leaders including Deputy Speaker Jeong Kab-yoon and the Hon. Mayor of Daegu city. Indeed, in an exclusive interaction with Prime Minister Modi, the extent to which both sides found an identity of views about the need for more ‘Korea in India’ was both illustrative and electrifying.

We plan to build on this momentum that has been created by the strong partnership between President Park and Prime Minister Modi, by redoubling efforts for the forthcoming quarter. In every sector of our partnership, we have plans and programmes on the anvil. Here’s what the path ahead looks like: defense ties will be stepped up, as also our political and strategic dialogues, based on agreement reached during the successful visits of our External Affairs Minister in December 2014, our Defence Minister last April, and our Prime Minister last May. We reached agreement late last year to triple flight services between our countries, creating space for mutually-beneficial business and tourism connectivity, which can be built out in the course of this year. Just this month, we reached agreement on the establishment of “Korea Plus”, a joint G2G mechanism to exclusively facilitate Korean businesses in carrying out trade and investment in India. Negotiations for a first substantive amendment to our 2010 Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (ie, a Free trade Agreement) are to begin in the middle of this year. And we anticipate a significant presence of Korean defence companies at our international Defence Expo in March. So also, Korea will be the first Partner Country for India’s first Maritime International Summit in Mumbai this April, through which we hope the maritime sector becomes a new driver of our partnership. Even in Culture, we will build on the achievements of Sarang, our first standalone Indian cultural festival launched last November in Korea, utilizing the unique brand-value of its title which means ‘love’ in Korean, and ‘colourful’ in Hindi.

And so it is that at the beginning of this year, on India’s Republic Day, we are confident that Korea and India will be strong partners for the present and the future. Through joint effort, we can secure the next decades of Korean prosperity, while also sustaining the rapid economic growth that India needs to transform its democracy of 1.2 billion people into the world’s leading engine of growth.

That is why our slogan for India-Korea ties in this 43rd year of full Ambassadorial ties is: hamkke hamyeon, seonggong habnida, Standing together, we will succeed. >Vikram Doraiswami