South Korean navy vessels taking part in a naval drill off the east coast of South Korea in September last year. Photo: AFP/South Korean Defense Ministry
South Korean navy vessels taking part in a drill off the east coast of South Korea in 2018. Photo: AFP / South Korean Defense Ministry

In April, South Korea and India held talks in New Delhi on defense-industry cooperation. More than 170 government and industry officials from both sides participated, including representatives from 12 Korean companies such as Hanwha Defense and Korea Aerospace Industries. By any standard this was a rare and significant event.

Of late, however, the more strategic aspects of defense cooperation between the two nations have gone off track as conglomerates with profit-oriented interests have come to dominate the discussion. Very few individuals “in the establishment” have actually been talking about how Korea and India can work together to maintain peace and security in Asia during the ongoing power transition of this region.

Power shift

With the continuing erosion of US influence, smaller powers like South Korea, which has depended almost solely on the US-Korea alliance for external security, are being forced to look for new security alternatives. Throughout the region, mid-sized powers have been entering new security arrangements to sustain peace and security during these “transition years.”

During this emerging era of uncertainty and instability, India and Korea have found themselves to be natural allies. The ongoing power shift has, in fact, brought them closer together than ever before. As democracies, both countries are major stakeholders in preserving the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean (through which 95% of their foreign trade passes) not only has serious economic implications for both countries, but it is also playing into the minds of Indian and South Korean defense leaders

Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean (through which 95% of their foreign trade passes) not only has serious economic implications for both countries, but it is also playing into the minds of Indian and South Korean defense leaders. Strategic imperatives for both countries to cooperate in order to keep sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean open are increasing almost by the day.

Meanwhile, the ongoing rise of the South Korean defense industry has given Indian policymakers new impetus to reduce their dependence on traditional defense suppliers in Europe and Asia. Modernization of their defense forces has thereby contributed substantially to forming closer ties with South Korea, and business has been growing.

In recent years South Korea and India have signed many high-profile defense deals. Topping the list is the K9 Vajra 155mm/52-caliber guns, to be jointly manufactured by India’s private defense major Larsen & Toubro and Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. Under this deal, a total of 100 guns are to be produced. The net worth of this deal is estimated at around US$1.3 billion.

After a tough competition that included Russia’s Tunguska-M1, the Indian Army recently selected Hanwha’s K-30 Biho (Flying Tiger) twin 30mm short-range mobile self-propelled anti-aircraft system. The expected value of this deal, with quantities of 104 K-30 Biho systems, plus 97 ammunition carriers and 39 command vehicles, is said to be $2.6 billion. Last year, India and South Korea signed a bilateral agreement in defense shipbuilding. Under the conceived plan, the two sides will nominate one shipyard each for the purpose of ship-building cooperation.

The South Korean aerospace industry has also shown interest in getting its share of the growing pie. For example, it has been advocating the export of its FA-50 light attack aircraft, based on the KT-1 Basic Trainer and T-50 Advanced Trainer, to India. Big-time projects like the Future Ready Combat Vehicle program are also in the pipelines with the Korean defense industry.

Apart from these deals, in recent years South Korea has proposed several measures to establish special defense-industry cooperation with India. Foremost is the proposal to set up defense corridors in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh in order to develop India-specific products for its armed forces.

All talk, little substance

Stung by the criticism that both counties are focusing too much on defense industrial cooperation while ignoring more pressing strategic aspects of this cooperation, the two sides have proposed a “first of its kind” 2+2 secretary-level dialogue after the formation of the new government in New Delhi. This new initiative is being sold as a sign of growing confidence from both parties in India’s “Act East” Policy and South Korea’s “New Southern Policy” (NSP) to contribute to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Top political leadership in both countries has also made various grand political declarations emphasizing the increasing significance of closer cooperation between India and Korea. In spite of all this, not much has changed on the ground and there still exists a huge gap in the strategic vision of both countries. Despite the urging of experts, Korea and India have failed to align their defense policies with each other’s defense perspectives. Defense-industry elites on both sides have very rarely seen eye-to-eye on various security and defense-related issues facing the region.

Certainly, there still exists a huge gap between the respective mindsets of Indian and Korean strategic leadership. Broadly speaking, the defense establishment of both counties has been viewing defense cooperation mainly as an opportunity to do big-ticket business deals rather than achieving broader security objectives. Military education exchanges and cooperation in the field of research and development are still at a very basic level. Naval exercises, as part of the ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Field Training Exercise (FTX), are still being held on terms which lack serious strategic elements. Furthermore, a security treaty is nowhere in the picture in the minds of political leadership from either country at this point.

Back to basics

According to the original concept of strategic cooperation between the two nations, as formulated 20 years ago, India and South Korea were expected to work together in the defense sector to sustain peace and security in Asia long into the future. Defense-industry cooperation was nowhere in the picture then, but as soon as the Korean defense industry started expanding into foreign markets and Indian defense contractors and business people saw some opportunity to make money from this expansion, the two sides joined hands. Thus the whole concept and direction of India-Korea defense cooperation was altered.

Generally speaking, it is all now about money. Scholars and academics working on the strategic aspects of defense cooperation are very rarely invited to defense-related conferences, seminars or talks, which are dominated nowadays by defense contractors.

It is high time that control of India-Korea defense cooperation be taken back from these profit seekers and given over to where it belongs. To develop comprehensive defense cooperation, a step-by-step approach is the urgent need of the hour. Currently there exists a huge gap in the mindsets of Korean and Indian strategic thinkers. They must begin with the development of a meeting of the minds on the evolving regional security scenario, followed by development of a convergence of strategic vision for the common future. Such convergence would then be followed by a closer defense-policy alignment, and cooperation from the defense industry could then come into the picture to help enforce a mutual long-term strategic vision.

Any attempt to focus on defense-industry cooperation without first developing a common strategic vision can only prove counterproductive and is bound to fail in the long run. A broader joint security treaty encompassing different aspects of the defense cooperation between the two countries to meet growing external threats is pressing. We can ignore it at our peril.

India-Korea defense cooperation is not about profit, but rather it is about defending our way of life. When we reduce such important and mutually beneficial cooperation into mere business deals, the true potential of cooperation is blocked. Let us stand guard, for this must not happen on our watch.

Lakhvinder Singh is director of peace and security studies at the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

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