Is South Korea The Next Israel For India In Defense Collaboration?

South Korean defense minister Suh Wook’s three-day India visit is aimed at enhancing the strategic relationship between the two Asian nations, one that may even rival India’s partnership with Israel, some experts say.

The minister, who is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi on Thursday after his UAE trip, will hold wide-ranging talks with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, on potential defense deals and other areas of mutual interest.

The two sides are expected to discuss the scope for deeper cooperation in defense production, enhancing military-to-military cooperation between India and South Korea, which may also include security-related issues surrounding the Indo-Pacific.

Suh Wook will be accompanied by senior officers of his ministry during his ministerial-level meeting with Rajnath Singh. Wook will also inaugurate the ‘Indo-Korean Friendship Park’ in New Delhi, which was established on the basis of a 2019 agreement.

The park will embody the age-old friendship between the two nations which started with the sacrifice and commitment of Indian troops assisting the country in the 1950-53 Korean War.

India and South Korea raised their ties to ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ in 2015 ushering in an era of unprecedented defense cooperation. The two countries have been discussing deals involving multiple military platforms and weapons, naval shipbuilding, and collaboration in defense R&D.

Over the years, South Korea has accorded the status of a key partner to India with both countries sharing mutual interests and security threats in the Indo-Pacific region. And under its ‘Act East Policy’, India considers South Korea an important ally in the evolving strategic scenario.

In February last year, the two countries finalized the “roadmap for defense industry cooperation,” under which India committed itself to ease regulations on South Korean defense firms in India. The two countries also decided to set up a task force in charge of the implementation of the agreement.

India has continuously supported the South Korean concerns about nuclearization attempts by North Korea, offering to make efforts to ensure lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Defense Deals On The Anvil

Among the major deal likely to be discussed during Suh Wook’s India visit is the Korean defense industry’s $2.6-billion contract of selling Self-Propelled Air Defence Gun Missile System (SPAD-GMS) to India.

There have been reports about India deciding to manufacture these guns on its own to cut the country’s dependence on imports in the defense sector.

South Korea’s Hanhwa Defense company beat the Russian competitor in the bid competition for the high-valued deal. As per media reports, the deal may be on the table again.

The Korean government has reportedly been working hard for almost seven years to sell the K30 Biho, one of Korea’s most successful domestic weapons projects to date, to the Indian armed forces.

India had been looking for short-range anti-aircraft artillery to shoot down adversary aircraft and drones at low altitudes, and Biho could be a potential choice, also accompanied by a short-range antimissile system.

One more significant deal could be the procurement of mine-counter measure vessels (MCMVs), which the Indian Navy has been looking for to fill gaps in its mine warfare capability.

Earlier attempts to procure MCMVs from South Korea’s Kangnam Corporation had been unsuccessful after the company was hit by controversies resulting in the contract being canceled.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in taking a Metro ride with Indian PM Narendra Modi in Delhi (file photo)

According to Financial Express, the Indian Navy may be “open to the idea of leasing the MCMVs to fill the gap until they are built at India’s Goa Shipyard through transfer-of-technology (ToT) route under the `Make in India’ initiative”.

The Indian Navy plans to acquire an unspecified number of MCMVs on lease to fulfill its requirement, although it has options for indigenous minesweepers manufactured by the Indian firms. At one time, the Navy was in possession of 12 MCMVs but there’s none left now, which puts the security of harbors and sea lanes at risk.

South Korean companies have also expressed interest in collaborating on advanced conventional submarines under Project-75I (India), although there is no clarity whether this will be a topic of discussion during the defense minister’s visit.

QUAD-Plus Collaboration?

There has been some heightened activity by the QUAD countries in recent times to scale up their relationship to military cooperation to thwart China’s increasing expansionist agenda in the Indo-Pacific.

There have been talks of the four-nation bloc inviting other nations with aligned security interests to join the coalition, which included Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, to ostensibly collaborate on dealing with the global pandemic and evolve coordinated response.

However, according to the reports in South Korean media, “Suh Wook has no plans to discuss the US-led regional forum QUAD with his Indian counterpart during his visit to the country this week,” reported Yonhap News Agency. The ministry stressed the visit will focus on defense cooperation between the two countries, it added.

South Korea has maintained in the past that the country is willing to participate in any such coalition provided the group reflected the conventions of international law and was “transparent and inclusive.”

Notwithstanding, the visit of South Korea’s defense minister comes at a crucial juncture and is indicative of the beginning of a new era in Indo-Korean strategic partnership, one that may even rival India’s partnership with Israel, some experts say.

South Korea being one of the leading innovators in the defense sector may be an ideal partner for a country like India, which is itself seeking collaboration in the fields of research and development in the sector.

The coming together of the US, India, South Korea, and Japan, mostly necessitated by the rising Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific region, which also supports North Korea, has resulted in deepening military ties between these countries.

India and South Korea, therefore, may take their defense cooperation to a higher level to strengthen ties in their mutual interests.

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