Manmohan Singh's Seoul Visit- Strategic Implications

Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s four day visit to the South Korean capital Seoul from Sunday (March 25) to attend the second Global Nuclear Security Summit will also include a major bilateral meeting with the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that will be important as part of India’s comprehensive ‘look east ‘ policy. And in all likelihood, there could be a meeting on the sidelines of the Seoul summit between PM Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani.

Thus the Seoul agenda is of critical importance to India and Delhi’s potential relevance to the regional and global domain – and this notwithstanding the domestic turbulence over the Railway budget fiasco and the political humiliation heaped on a stoic PM by short-term coalition compulsions. The outcome of the meetings that Dr. Singh will have with his South Korean host Lee, US President Obama and Pakistani PM Gilani will have long term implications that will go well beyond the tenure of UPA II.

South Korea has not received adequate attention given its strategic contours in the heat and dust of Delhi, which is episodically seized with China, Pakistan and occasionally Japan when it comes to taking stock of Asia. India’s look east policy has to factor in Seoul in a more focused manner and this stems from South Korea’s very impressive national profile. A nation partitioned by the vicissitudes of the Cold War, today South Korea is the 15th largest economy in the world – with a GDP of US $ 1.2 trillion (2011) and a per capita of almost US $ 35,000 with the potential to touch $ 40,000 by 2016. South Korea’s industrial base and high-technology competence is globally acknowledged and there are many opportunities for India to explore and engage across the political, economic, industrial and military domains.

India needs to forge long term partnerships with the major economies of East Asia and here the relevance of South Korea - in a spectrum that spans Japan, Taiwan and the ASEAN collective, cannot be ignored. All of these links, if nurtured prudently will enable Delhi to position itself more appropriately in its dealings with the regional heavyweight – China. Hopefully PM Singh’s current Seoul meeting will further consolidate the foundation for this bi-lateral relationship that was laid when President Lee was invited to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade in January 2010.

Seoul has weathered the recent global economic crisis in a more resilient manner than its peers in the region and under President Lee, the country which is a US military ally, is seeking to position itself in a more effective manner to contribute to the management of global and regional challenges. At the global level, Seoul has hosted the G-20 summit in November 2010 – where Dr. Singh was a voice heard with respect - to deal with the economic crisis; and is now poised to host 53 nations for the nuclear security summit. President Obama's personal commitment to the nuclear agenda adds to the attention that this meeting is receiving.

While Seoul has gone to great length to emphasize that the current nuclear security summit is more about non-state actors and the way to prevent the theft of fissile material – the unstated agenda and the primary focus for the global leaders led by US President Obama will be on North Korea’s forthcoming rocket launch – and the intractable challenge posed by Iran over its nuclear program. Nuclear safety will also be a major issue and it may be recalled that in March 2011, the world was shocked by the Fukushima disaster and many countries including India are reviewing their long term plans about the viability of nuclear power.

The area of abiding concern for the global community is the linkage between nuclear weapons, long-range missiles (clubbed together as WMD) and the possibility that this capability can be used by a deviant regime to advance terrorism. This linkage is referred to as NWET – or nuclear weapon enabled terrorism – and the US anxiety over both Iran and North Korea stems from this possibility. Will Pyongyang and Tehran become more unmanageable (in the US perspective) if they become nuclear weapon capable? US Presidents since Bill Clinton through George Bush to Barack Obama now, have been trying in vain to cope with the complex challenges of such revisionist behavior – and paradoxically this NWET linkage is also of abiding concern to India.

The US and its allies are trying to prevent NWET from becoming a reality – and hence the 2003 Iraq war was waged. Now there is anxiety that Iran could be similarly targeted to prevent this exigency from becoming a reality. But for India, NWET has been a real security challenge since May 1990 – and it took the enormity of Mumbai 2008 and the US military’s Abbotabad operation that eliminated bin Laden to make the global community acknowledge this inconvenient truth.

Over the years, a less than sagacious pursuit of short-term US interests has led to the nuclear issue being deliberately distorted. Consequently there is much that has been swept under the global carpet – including the notorious AQ Khan network with clear North Korea connections that the Pak military in Rawalpindi had supported and kept hidden.

And this is where the Singh-Gilani meeting becomes relevant. Despite their domestic political situation – the two beleaguered leaders need to remain focused on the long-term agenda to stabilize the Indo-Pak relationship against a two decade old history, where nuclear weapons and terrorism were adroitly used by the Pak military.

The global community in Seoul needs to review this opaque nuclear past objectively and not come to the facile conclusion that selective yardsticks can be applied to ensure nuclear safety and stability. The outcome of the Seoul deliberations will be very relevant for the next Prime Minister of India – whichever party or coalition he or she may belong to!

(Commodore (Retd) C. Uday Bhaskar is one of India's leading strategic analysts. He can be contacted at This article first appeared in South Asia Monitor on March 25, 2012)
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