Though South Korea joined India in the small club of Asian democracies more than 20 years ago, the two nations only embarked on truly expanding diplomatic ties when former President Lee Myung-bak made an important state visit to New Delhi in 2010.
Why the two countries finally began strengthening ties has a lot to with economics, but the fact that both South Korea and India are democracies is just as important a reason, according to Indian Ambassador to South Korea Vishnu Prakash.
“We are fellow democracies and there is a convergence of interests,” the Indian ambassador said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Hannam-dong in Seoul on Friday.
|Indian Ambassador to South Korea Vishnu Prakash speaks with The Korea Herald in an interview at the Indian chancery in Hannam-dong, Seoul, Friday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
Early this year, President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not running in the nationwide vote, agreed to elevate the level of the comprehensive economic partnership agreement, or CEPA, and strengthen diplomatic, defense and cultural cooperation.
Ambassador Prakash described a wide range of international challenges today, from the spread of weapons of mass destruction to climate change and food security. In an apparent reference to their shared democratic values he said it is helpful that India and South Korea are “facing these challenges from the same music sheet.”
But the two nations are in a small club. Of the 23 countries in Asia, only six are democratic: India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia and Indonesia
“India and South Korea, along with other democracies, do make an impact on the public discourse,” he said.
Democracy is the glue that spurs a country as diverse as India forward, he said. He described India as “diverse with a capital D, a diversity in every manifestation, whether it is ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic or geographical.” The results of this Herculean electoral undertaking will be declared on Friday.
“What we managed to do is to give everybody a sense of empowerment. A person knows that his vote is powerful, and the Indian voter has learned to use it very effectively,” he said.
Recent polls show that voters across India are tilting toward the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who styles himself as a decisive economic leader with an intriguing rags-to-riches backstory.
“If you like statistics, the percentage of countries that are democratic in Asia, Africa, everywhere, is rising. There is a clear trend especially in the last 20 years, since the end of the Cold War, where the number of countries opting for democracy is increasing.”
Prakash’s positive outlook for democracy in Asia is supported by Brian Joseph, senior director of the National Endowment for Democracy. In a 2012 speech, Joseph pointed to the prospects for democratic change in the economically dynamic countries of East and Southeast Asia, such as Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Prakash was quick to note, however, that India is not interested in “teaching” democratic norms and practices to its neighbors, saying “the word ‘teaching’ means we are being prescriptive. We strongly believe that every country will do what is best suited to its genius. That is an article of faith.”
Instead, what both South Korea and India do is cooperate though multilateral organizations, such as the Association of Asian Electoral Authorities.
Established in 1998, the group has been led by South Korea since 2011. Currently the vice chair of the AAEA is India.
Prakash pointed to the AAEA as an example of how Asian countries can help each other make elections, and by extension democracy, work for them. “This association is one of the focal points which brings the election commissions together and helps them share experiences.”
In the meantime, South Korea and India are moving ahead with tightening bilateral ties. Starting this year, the two sides will hold ministerial meetups on defense and other areas on a regular basis. They signed the Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information, with the aim of improving trust and cooperation in defense and security issues.
On the investment front, a gargantuan $12-billion steel plant project by POSCO, capable of producing 12 million tons annually, received a crucial green light by the Indian environment minister on the eve of Park’s visit in January. The project had been hamstrung by regulatory setbacks since it was signed in 2005.
South Korea has long had designs to become a major exporter of nuclear power. For its part, India plans to aggressively expand construction of nuclear power plants.
In 2012, India produced 4,700 megawatts of electricity from 20 reactors. The additional seven reactors under construction will increase that to over 11,000 mw. India wants to produce 20,000 mw by 2020. India has plans for 18 new reactors, including four Russian units and two modern French ones.
South Korea and India inked a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement in 2011.
The security relationship was upgraded to a “strategic partnership” in January 2010. It was further enhanced with the visit of Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony to Seoul in September that same year.
Then, in November 2012, India’s diplomatic mission here added a defense wing led by a high ranking military officer.
Apart from defense, building nuclear reactors is a billion-dollar area where India is a huge opportunity for South Korea. Seoul is keen to build civilian nuclear plants in India to power the latter’s electricity generation projects. But stringent liability laws in India have kept foreign corporations away, especially the United States, and South Korea may find entry into this field as thorny as the Americans.
Indian law permits people hurt in any nuclear accident to sue suppliers of nuclear materials. It remains an open question whether a business-minded Modi administration would be willing to revisit the liability issue.
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com)