Korea’s Post-American Alliance Choices (1): India?


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This will be an occasional series. The US is entering a period of decline. Its ability and willingness to meet its alliance commitment to South Korea is waning. So Korea is, quietly, beginning to poke around in Asia. It is setting up preferential trade areas where possible, signing up whomever it can for ‘strategic partnerships,’ and generally branching out in the region. This serves both its desire to be a more regional player (rather than be permanently trapped in its peninsular ghetto with NK) and its growing need for friends beyond the US. The US has neither the money nor the domestic will to fight another Korean war. So it makes sense for Korea to look around, even if no one will admit that that is what it is doing.

On Monday, I spoke on the radio about this. Last week, the president of Korea had a state visit to India. India is a good choice for several reasons. Like Korea, India is

1. a liberal democracy with a lot of religious diversity.

2. worried about China’s rise.

3. an American ally.

4. Bonus: India is not Japan.

While more common than in the past, stable democracy is still hard to find in Asia. It makes sense for Korea and India to hang together. Of course, the closest democracy to Korea is Japan, but the mutual loathing is so severe, that Japan is a last ditch alliance choice for Korea. Further, both have a good tradition of internal tolerance based on their religious diversity. Everyone knows of India’s of course, but Korea too is one of the most religious fragmented states in Asia (sizeable minorities of Catholics, Buddhists, born-again protestants, and agnostics, with no dominant bloc).

This commonality of values is complemented by a commonality of interests, or rather an interest: China. Both are edgy about its quick rise (no surprise there), and both continue to hedge it and ally with the US in order to do so.

The downsides though are high. India is far away. It does not have the two-ocean fleet necessary to project serious power into Northeast Asia, and it is still losing the race with China.

__________________________________________________________________

TRANSCRIPT – DR. ROBERT E. KELLY, PUSAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

BUSAN E-FM: “MORNING WAVE”

MONDAYS, 8 AM

February 1, 2010

Petra:

So President Lee went off to India last week. What happened? Why is this important?

REK:

Two reasons. First, Korean has a trade relationship with India. Second, Korea is slowly poking around Asia for other friends and possible partners.

Petra:

Ok. Is Korea’s trade with India significant?

REK:

Middling. Korea is India’s 9th biggest trading partner. That is ok. But there are 1.3 billion Indians, and they are getting wealthier. So it makes sense for Korea to try to push into this market. This is similar to the growth of China. As China and India both develop and get wealthier, their huge internal markets will attract interest from around the world.

Petra:

So if this was basically a trade mission, why did President Lee go?

REK:

Well, it was more than that. President Lee was a guest of honor for India’s big national holiday. It was an official state visit. Such trips fit President Lee’s style of diplomacy. First, the president has increasingly used his position to act as a salesman for Korea industry. You may recall his earlier bout of commercial diplomacy in the United Arab Emirates regarding Korean-designed nuclear power plants. Second, the pursuit of trade agreements has grown into a major Korean foreign policy tool in the last decade or two.

Petra:

Can you explain that a little more?

REK:

Sure. The bedrock of Korean foreign policy is the security alliance with the United States. But increasingly Korea has looked for an autonomous economic foreign policy. And Korea’s chosen manner of reaching out, especially in Asia, is trade deals. Korea has sought all sorts of preferential and free trade areas, and President Lee has made this a regular focus of his trips abroad.

Petra:

Has it been successful? I thought Korea belonged to the World Trade Organization which organizes global trade rules.

REK:

That’s true. But the WTO is stuck right now. The current round of trade negotiation, begun in Doha in Qatar in the Middle East, has been bogged down for years. With the Doha round frozen, Korea has turned to bilateral and regional trade deals in its foreign policy. This trip to India, as well as the recent sale of nuclear reactors in the Middle East is a part of this process.

Petra:

So the WTO is stuck, and President Lee is trying to push Korean exports on his own on these trips?

REK:

Yes, that’s right. In international relations, we call this commercial diplomacy, and President Lee is getting quite good at it. The big prize, an FTA with the US, is still out of reach though.

Petra:

Ok. Let’s stay with India. You said something about Korea looking for other friends and partners. What does that mean?

REK:

Well Korea is a tight neighborhood. It is surrounded by three big countries – Russia, Japan, and China – who have traditionally bullied or informally dominated the Korean peninsula. Korea’s political geography, or geopolitics, is quite poor; it is encircled. This is the great benefit of the US alliance. The US is too far away from Korea to dominate it, but the US alliance does help Korea prevent itself from being dominated by others. As long as US troops are in Korea, Korea can push back any encroachment by China, Japan or Russia.

Petra:

So what does this have to do with India?

REK:

Well, the US is in trouble now. The US deficit is gigantic. The US public debt is too. The US is fighting two hot wars in the Middle East, and several clandestine conflicts there as well. It is eight and a half years now since 9/11, and Americans are exhausted with all these wars and conflict.

Petra:

Does that include Korea?

REK:

Not really, but Americans certainly don’t want to get pulled into a big conflict here. As most Koreans know, the US military footprint in Korea is shrinking, and the US will officially relinquish wartime authority of the Korean military in 2012. In short, the US is increasingly looking for ways to lower the costs of the Korean alliance.

Petra:

So Korea is shopping for other friends?

REK:

Probably, quietly. I certainly would be. The US looks at Korea, and it sees a wealthy modern country that it believes should be able to defend itself without much US assistance. So Korea is wise to begin to think about friends and possible allies beyond simply the US.

Petra:

So can India be an ally to Korea?

REK:

Maybe. India has some definitely upsides for Korea. Like Korea, India is a democracy. Democracy in Asia is still somewhat rare, so Indo-Korean cooperation on security makes good sense. India also worries a lot about China’s rapid growth. India has an ongoing border dispute with China, much as the two Koreas and China do over the ancient Koguryeo role’s in history. So there is a community of values between India and Korea – liberalism, democracy, religious tolerance – as well as a community of interests – careful observation and response to China’s rise. Finally, both Korea and India are American allies.

Petra:

So how is the Korean government proceeding?

REK:

Well President Lee and the Indian prime minister agreed to upgrade Indo-Korean ties to a ‘strategic partnership.’ That implies that the two see each other as more than just trading partners or friends. President Lee pursued the same approach with US President Obama in the summer 2009. But for observers, it is hard to know the details of this new partnership. There will be regular meetings between officials of the two countries’ ministries, but it is hard to know how serious this will be.

Petra:

So there is no Indo-Korean alliance in the offing?

REK:

Probably not. Better to see this another sign that Korea is aware that the US is in trouble because of the long war on terrorism and the huge financial burden of the crisis. Korea is wise to start poking around for new friends, if not trade partners, and India is a good choice.

Petra:

Thank you coming again, Professor.

2 thoughts on “Korea’s Post-American Alliance Choices (1): India?

  1. Pingback: Robert Gates’ Final Speech on US Defense Cuts « Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: What SK President Lee should have said to the US Congress – UPDATED: A Response to my Critics this Friday « Asian Security Blog

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