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Seeing a much bigger role for India in Korea and the Region- Dr. Lakhvinder Singh

Friday, June 15th, 2018

Dr. Lakhvinder Singh

Dr. Lakhvinder Singh, founder and director of the India-Korea Business and Policy Forum, has spent many years in Korea as professor, lecturer, commentator and writer. Here he talks to Donald Kirk on the critical but often neglected topic of India’s role in the region, notably Korea:
Question: Should India be playing a bigger strategic role in the region in terms of defense, including sending troops to east Asia, or would that be too upsetting in terms of China's response?
Answer: Today there exist very strong strategic imperative for deeper defense cooperation between two countries. With the rapid increase of Chinese military might in the region, the balance of power is shifting very fast. The USA-led security structure is in great stress. No country in Asia can face the changing “balance of forces” in the region alone. To keep some degree of stability in this fast-changing region we must work closely with each other. Stronger India-Korea defense ties is the answer and way forward. Let us work together in that direction.

Q: We often hear about 6-party talks on N. Korea. How about making it 7-party talks and including India as a major player with diplomatic ties with both N. and S. Korea?

A: India has very serious stakes in maintaining peace in this part of the world. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, India played very important role in peace-building on the Korean peninsula. It is time India becomes active again in playing a role in building peace in Korea. Indian engagement as a facilitator of the peace process could be very beneficial for the region as India has very good diplomatic ties with all parties involved including North Korea. India is one country that everyone can trust.

Q: Would not a place for India in multi-lateral talks on N. Korea have broad strategic implications?

Answer: Yes. India’s participation in peace-building in Korea will have huge strategic implications for the whole region.
It could also be very good for India as it will strengthen India’s “Act East Policy.” India will be really “acting” and doing something concrete in this part of the world. By deeply engaging with the peace process, it will cement India’s place in this region like no other policy initiative. I have been advocating deeper Indian engagement for a long time. I think this will be India’s chance to show the world tht India is coming back to this part of the world.

Q: We've heard about India's desire for a four-nation alliance, including Australia, Japan and the U.S., as a counter to China. What would be the real point of this alliance? Could it work -- and would other members really want it?

A: Yes. These four counties are talking on these lines. Yes. It can work if these countries understand the bigger picture. China’s challenge is mainly economic. So these four countries should help each other in enhancing their economic capabilities rather than only doing military exercises in the Indian Ocean. Currently Chinese military is not moving, so we need to focus on economics. So currently we should focus on technical, education and human resources cooperation. We need to cooperate to enhance our all-around capabilities, not just military.

Q: What would be China's reaction? How would it shape the balance of power in Northeast Asia?

A: We can meet China challenge only by outgrowing China in all important sectors, not just military. Our current concept of cooperation is very narrow as it only focus on military cooperation. This will not work. We need to change. Of course China will not like this kind of grouping if it is purely military in nature and is exclusively aimed at it (China). But it should understand if it is focused on broader cooperation in the region. It will help China also as it helps keeping the balance of power in the region. Premature collapse of the current security structure can hurt China also as it is not ready for a leadership role yet. So sustaining balance of power is in everybody’s interest.

Q: And what would be the implications for Korea, South and North?

A: The implications for Korea, South. and North will be huge. Currently fate of the peninsula hangs in mid-air as both Koreas are not sure which way balance of power will shift. But once they are assured of the sustainability of current regional order they can focus on their internal issues of peace and unification. So it will help in peace and prosperity in Korean peninsula.

Q: Is there any way India and Korea can cooperate effectively on defense needs -- perhaps with India buying Korean military products?

A: They can and do in a very meaningful and effective way. I am a strong advocate of deeper India-Korea defense cooperation for peace and prosperity of the whole region. Yes, the  failure of Kyungnam and Hyundai defense ship projects is a great setback, and I am personally very disappointed with this development, but we should not lose hope. As both counties modernize their armed forces to meet the challenges of the 21st-century, potential of cooperation between these two counties is huge in near future.

Q: What can be done to revive the deal for building a steel plant in India. That was to be one of Korea's greatest overseas investments -- can we try and bring it back to life?

A: I don’t think we can do anything to revive the project. It is too late for that. But still we can learn some important lessons from this episode: “Never invite a major foreign investment project without doing your basic homework.” Failure of this project has done tremendous damage to future India- Korea relations.

Q: What about motor vehicle ties? Mahindra owns Ssangyong, and Hyundai makes cars near Chennai. How about encouraging more motor vehicle investment both ways -- maybe Samsung Renault in India or Indian investment in Renault Samsung? Or India investment in troubled GM Korea?

A: Our motor vehicle business is very successful. The Hyundai car project is a grand success. It controls a17% market share as of 2017 and US$ 5.5 billion turn-over in India.  Recently Kia motors also entered Indian market with cumulative investment of $1.6 billion. Yes, the way the Indian market is growing, it is just a matter of time before Renault Samsung also plunges into Indian market. Mahindra’s buyout of Ssangyong turned out be huge success. After initial difficulties company, it is making profits worldwide.

Q: What more can India export to Korea – for example, clothing, textiles and other finished products?

 A: Very good question indeed. To narrow down the growing deficit we need to find more and more products that we can sell in Korea. India has good human resources that Korea lacks. The service sector has great potential. High-tech products also have potential. We can also think of expanding our agriculture products especially Indian fruit.

Q: What about manufacturing more electronic products in India, drawing Samsung Electronics and others into major plant facilities?

A: Very good idea. The Indian electronic market is expanding. Currently Samsung is doing great business in this sector. I think given the potential of this market it is just a matter of time before Samsung Electronics makes a major investment in India.

Q: How about increasing cultural ties, Bollywood and Bengali films to Korea, K-Pop to India?

A: Bollywood pictures have already started appearing in the Korean market, it is just a matter of time before Korean movies also start showing up in Indian cinemas. We are already talking to some Indian distributors to release Korean movies in India. Hopefully some good news will come out soon. The potential of business in this sector is huge.

Q: And how about increasing student exchanges too -- both ways?

A: Yes. The potential is huge. Unfortunately, not many Korean students are going to study in Indian universities. We need to work on this sector to make it attractive for Korean students.

Q: Might it help to increase the size of Indian embassy, trade and cultural offices, Indian library and film showings?

A: Yes. We need to expand our diplomatic resources. In my recent article I argued for setting up a new trade and commerce center as current embassy staff cannot handle all the pressure of emerging partnerships. As most of them are diplomats, they don’t understand the nitty-gritty of trade and commerce in the deeper sense of the term.


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