Antony is set to undertake a two-day visit to the East Asian nation South Korea in a bid to “boost defence co-operation between the two countries”.
Antony, who will begin his visit on 2 September, will be accompanied by defence secretary Pradeep Kumar, defence adviser Sundaram Krishna and senior army and navy officials.
“The visit is part of India’s ‘Look East policy’ and a wide range of issues, including defence and bilateral co-operation in research and development for manufacture of military equipment, will figure prominently during the visit,” the defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The visit comes in the backdrop of reports of a massive Chinese military presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and a recent Pentagon report that details the Chinese build-up. “Antony was supposed to visit South Korea later this year but the fact that he is going now, so close after Krishna’s visit, indicates that there is some urgency in countering China’s military build-up by forging stronger military and strategic ties with South Korea,” said Rajaram Panda, senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (Idsa). Since May, Antony has visited Oman and Seychelles and is scheduled to visit the US in late September and Vietnam in October as part of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Panda said India is looking to effectively counter the Chinese “string of pearls” strategy and Antony’s visit should be looked at in a larger context. “We could safely say that these are the beginnings of an India-South Korea-Japan axis as a counterpoise to the Pakistan-China-North Korea one,” he said. China’s “string of pearls” strategy is designed to control maritime interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)) by building bases or partnering with countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar in securing sea routes to move cargo and oil.
India and Japan have been holding negotiations toward concluding a civil nuclear deal and analysts point out that India would actively look to pursue a similar deal with South Korea. “Although chances of an Indo-Japan civil nuclear deal appear bright, Japan does have domestic political issues which could come in the way. In South Korea’s case, though, there is no such issue,” said Panda.
“Japan has always been on India’s strategic grid but not South Korea, which, because of its technological prowess, has a potentially large stake in India’s defence market,” said defence analyst Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar. “These back-to-back visits and bilateral exchanges are a tacit acknowledgement of that fact.”
Analysts say India would also seek to tap into South Korea’s strong capabilities in ship-building technology. “South Korea has marched ahead of Japan in naval ship-building technology, so it makes sense for India to build synergies with that country, considering the fact that our naval ship-building yards have their hands full,” added Bhaskar.
In recent years, India has increased its military, especially maritime, engagement with countries in the IOR.
The Indian Navy has been involved in anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden.
“Both the South Koreans and the Japanese are equally dependent on the IOR as their maritime trade routes run via the IOR. Considering the fact that India is the predominant naval force in the IOR, co-operation with India becomes inevitable,” Bhaskar said.