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Asia Pacific: The Japanese and South Korean tangents in India’s Look East Policy

by Vaagisha, Political Analyst, Thierry Apoteker Consulting, 23/01/2014.- India hosted Japanese Emperor Akihito in late December, followed by South Korean President Park Geun-hye and will finally host Japanese PM Shinzo Abe on its Republic Day, 26th January, 2014 as Guest of Honour. The centre for strategic action is melting in India whose Look East policy has been usually not far from South-east Asian countries, but 2014 is heralding a chapter beyond that. Politics of geo-strategic posturing and economics will remain the dominant tone in Indo-Pacific and East Asian region in years to come. 

On a superficial examination of India, Japan and South Korea, all three share democratic credentials with a convenient strategic U.S. alliance (defense exercises and diplomacy), sizeable economic growth and have common benefits and concern from China. India’s realization of its Look East policy, while Japan’s emphasis on aligning India strategically and South Korea’s economic stress on defense and trade enhancement with emerging economies and their meetings one after another is not a mere coincidence. It is a troika of democratic assertion in the region and indicative of kind of responses that diplomatic tensions in the region can expect if a common coherence is found. But for that to occur, politics has to rise above from extremist and mistrust of one another.

To assess India-South Korea axis, the relation has a large economic aspect from both sides. With an emphasis from President Park on her initiatives to connect with emerging economies through sales diplomacy and some of its leading chaebols including Hyundai and Samsung  already operating successfully in India, it is but obvious that defense trade ties would have figured eventually in the relation. India is also looking for a forum to engage in defense equipment manufacturing rather than just purchasing. The relation between both countries is also beyond as a buyer-seller. South Korea realizes the international presence of India and conversely, India must use this opportunity to touch down the North-East Asia front with which it has remained distant not only geographically but diplomatically as well. The point of North Korea is not only a sensitive zone for South Korea but also for India where North has not refrained from sharing its bounty nuke knowledge resource with India’s awkward neighborhood Pakistan.

India, Japan & South Korea hold trilateral military pactBut India’s relation with South Korea also touches another sensitive chord with regard to Japan. Traditionally, India has drawn inspiration from Japanese military during its own independence struggle while South Korea shares a bitter historic imperialist past with Japan. To invite Japan at a moment when spats with China were talk of the past year and continues to be, and showcase India’s military prowess in the Republic Day parade will be a teaser to Japan’s teething aspiration to bring its military might back. Post Great War in 40s, Japan has refrained from the strategic or security interests of regional groups and has stuck to economics. But with emergence of nationalistic Shinzo Abe and his openly displayed interest in reviving military has not only divided national agenda in the public purview but also raised concern in the East Asian region. Though Japanese economic presence in India is stronger but Abe’s emphasis on deepening strategic alliance and stronger defense integration is the formula that both India and Japan are looking to extend their footprint in the region as a reckoning force.

As it is known that Japanese Premier’s visit to Yasukuni shrine (a religious temple and also a war memorial of A-class officers) is tension exacerbation in East Asian region and elevates political condemnation from both South Korea and China and to an extent from the U.S.  India has politely distanced itself from the nitty-gritties involved with war related controversies. Though U.S.’s pivot ensures that any provocative actions by its allies in the region are attended to firmly but as India courts both South Korea and Japan aggressively it will be part of India’s responsibility to dispel negative sentiment arousing actions from any of the allies as it envisages carving an important role in the region. To deepen the integration strategically among the three democracies and including Australia and other South-East Asian region, it is pertinent to factor in the Chinese hawkish assertion on such bilateral or multilateral integrations.

Though China presents a unique situation of being at the centre of geo-strategic imbalances in the region either through Daioyu-Senkaku islands row with Japan, maritime aggression in South China Sea, cantankerous North Korea, yet it remains to be the largest economic partner with every East Asian country including its ever expanding trade in South Asia vis-à-vis India. Apart from economic dominance, what China must realize is that provocative foreign politics only strengthens the domestic political base support for the leaders facing the aggression. Also provocations only lead to further strengthening of like-minded nations. War memories create bitter present politics against the imperialist invading country and considering the fact that Japanese Premier’s military aspirations and President Park Geun-hye’s military background through her familial lineage, these two countries might be in an uncomfortable position, and that is where India must show preparedness to tackle complexities of the region.  

At the same time, it is irrevocable that U.S.’s equation with both South Korea and Japan is far more superior and coercive than India can ever take. But what these deepening efforts for economic and strategic integration with South Korea and Japan can do to India is to not only elevate its status regionally but also position itself as a strengthened partner for the U.S. while simultaneously ensure to not further dent Indo-Sino equation. In today’s context, regional dominance is to an extent inter-changeable with economic might and the effect of economic might can be exemplified by none other than China. And as keeping North Korean concern aside, South Korea cannot clarify its stance on China due to their expanding economic vitalities it might just fit in with India’s misgivings about China.

Both South Korea and Japan though have disagreements and agreements on certain factors of strategic decisions, the leverage lies with India to pursue this with sensitivity and forge a workable equation.


Vaagisha is a Political Analyst at Thierry Apoteker Consulting, a leading European Macroeconomic and Financial Research Consultancy. She covers political risk for emerging economies and writes structural geo-economic, geo-strategic analysis and supports TAC economists with relevant information. Her personal interest lies in Korean Peninsula, conflict resolution, ethno-national conflicts and peacemaking. She has completed her MSc in Comparative Politics (Asia) from London School of Economics and Political Science and has past journalism experience.