New Delhi, July 9: It's a marriage between two policies. On one hand, it is India's Act East Policy which received a boost under Prime Minister Narendra Modi as India focussed on engaging more with countries of eastern and southeastern nations for economic and strategic gains. On the other, the Moon Jae-in government of South Korea unveiled its New Southern Policy in November 2017 aiming to deepen ties with countries of Southeast Asia to reduce its over dependence on big powers like China and the US.
As part of his new policy, South Korean President Moon Jae-in made Indonesia the destination of his maiden state visit to the region in November last year and was accompanied by a huge business delegation.
Moon had told in a business forum in Jakarta then that Korean diplomacy in Asia has been more oriented towards Japan, China and Russia and it was time to expand Seoul's horizons.
South Korea's 'north' and 'south' policies
However, this southern policy is not meant to eclipse North Korea's focus on its key northern neighbours but to reflect Moon's New Northern Policy aimed at improving ties with Russia and other northeastern Asian nations like China, Japan and Mongolia. Moon has also played a proactive role to improve ties with North Korea, Seoul's biggest regional foe for decades.
In July 2018, Moon followed the visit to Indonesia with twin trips to India and Singapore - two key economies of South and Southeast Asia - as part of his New Southern Policy after a hiatus caused by his busy engagement with North Korea, United States, China and Japan over realisation of a denuclearised and peaceful Korean Peninsula.
How does India fit into South Korea's New Southern Policy apart from the fact that its importance in East Asia has grown over the years owing to its Look East and Act East policies.
India and South Korea share a very old relation and in the modern times, too, the two democracies have seen a harmonious relationship ever since they set up diplomatic ties in the early 1970s.
Today, as South Korea looks to strengthen its economic diplomacy to balance its strategic and peace-making diplomacy in its north, it looks to developing economies like India in the South. It counts India and the Asean as key parts of its New Southern Policy to help its economy as well as overall repositioning in the Indo-Pacific.
South Korea's tense relation with China
South Korea also has a tense relationship with China even though the North Korean nuclear problem makes them all look harmonious at the moment. As the US and Japan stress on India's role in countering China to make the Indo-Pacific a more free zone, South Korea also doesn't want to miss the opportunity even though it doesn't want it to be seen in anybody's side in the diplomatic power game. It chooses to play instead a soft game of economic diplomacy with India, something that other Asean countries are also doing to pursue a finely balanced foreign policy.
China and Japan pose considerable economic challenges to South Korea, known to be economically advanced, and this has prompted Seoul to find alternative partners for long-term gains and India perfectly fits that plan.
Despite New Delhi and Seoul signing the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2009, bilateral trade and economic ties between the two countries remain below the potential and South Korea finds the Indian market an ideal one for its technological, automobile and consumer products that are facing stiff challenge from the Chinese and Japanese.
It is important for India to reciprocate to the South Korean initiative of New Southern Policy with a more determined Act East Policy which not only counts on strategic competition with China but also on economic gains from other well-to-do nations in the region.