[Letters] China in mind, South Korea, India get closer

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[Letters] China in mind, South Korea, India get closer

Call it the China effect. South Korea and India are closer today than ever before.

A major sign of things to come was when Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony visited South Korea on Sept. 2. The two sides went the extra mile to ensure that the diplomatic symbolism of the first-ever visit by an Indian Defense Minister to Korea is forcefully conveyed to other parties in the region.

The visit must have been watched with great interest by the two major powers of the region, China and Japan. Antony’s visit can be seen as the first big step toward forging close defense cooperation between India and South Korea. The first memorandum of understanding signed between the two parties stipulates the exchange of defense-related experience and information, mutual visits by military personnel and other experts, military education, training and conducting military exercises.

The second MOU, under the overarching umbrella of India-South Korea Defense Agreement, would identify areas of mutual interest in future defense technology. It also serves as a template for pursuing research and development and the codevelopment and coproduction of defense products with Indian industry. All products developed under this mechanism will have joint intellectual property rights.

For his part, Antony hoped that his “visit will start a new chapter in our already close relationship” and stressed that the India-South Korea defense ties will be more than a buyer-seller relationship. He said the two sides were keen on the further evolution of this fledgling defense relationship. Antony’s South Korean counterpart said the two MOUs will provide a win-win scenario for the two countries.

Antony’s South Korea visit, and its strategic overtones, must be seen against the backdrop of China upping the ante recently in terms of flexing of its naval muscle and growing assertiveness in reiteration of maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Much to the chagrin of the international community, particularly South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and India, Beijing has been aggressively projecting in past few months that South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea are its exclusive preserve. Also, India is concerned about China’s entry into the Indian Ocean.

Antony said India and South Korea share the common idea of maintaining peace aand ensuring the safety and security of sea lanes in the region. He said regular exchanges was important to both countries, especially to secure vital energy supplies that pass through the Indian Ocean.

To counter Chinese designs on the Indian Ocean, India has openly started describing itself as an integral part of East Asia. Antony did not pull back his punches while he spoke on East Asian architecture. He remarked that India looks at itself as an integral part of East Asia as India is a founding member of East Asia Summit and as such, looks at the emerging architecture in East Asia as “open and inclusive.” In a deft diplomatic move, Antony sought to rope in the U.S. and Russia in the East Asian sweepstakes.

South Korea too gave a heavy dose of diplomatic symbolism to China by taking Antony around several of its defense establishments like the 3rd Training Wing of the Korean Air Force and the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) assembly line. Established in 1999, KAI is South Korea’s main national aerospace company, which manufactures civil and military aircraft and satellites. Antony’s tour of South Korean defense establishments also included a Korean Navy destroyer and a flight simulator. In conclusion, China’s diplomatic, naval and infrastructural blitzkrieg will not go unchecked by its rivals. India is also set to deepen its cooperation with Vietnam, a bugbear for China. The U.S. has already started cozying up to Hanoi. The great game in East Asia has just begun.

Rajeev Sharma, a New Delhi-based journalist and commentator on strategic issues, international relations and terrorism
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