It's difficult to say which foe bothers India the most. Chinese troops crossed India's frontiers in 1962, nipping bits of territory that they've never relinquished. Pakistan has waged three useless wars to try and recover the Indian portion of Kashmir, a Himalayan wonderland divided by a line of control since the end of British rule in 1947. China, showing its new strength all around its periphery, provides Pakistan more arms than does the U.S. while also building a new port with military implications plus a road running through ice-covered mountains providing access by land from China to the Indian Ocean.
How can India deal with the danger of such daunting external threats while worrying about the usual problems of poverty, severe political divisions, terrorism, the age-old caste system and religious prejudices and communal strife? One response is to build up its indigenous defense industry for which it needs assistance. Korea, as an industrialized nation with decades of harsh experience in minding its own defenses, is equipped to provide assistance. Negotiations are no doubt intense, but Parrikar would like agreements for Korea to provide technology, to invest directly in arms factories on Indian soil and perhaps sell ready-made weapons and systems.
Lakhvinder Singh, a visiting professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies and long-time advocate of cooperation between India and Korea, summarized the reasons for India-Korea cooperation. "Strategic balance in East Asia is changing very fast," he says. "The economic rise of China has changed the underlying economic, social and military structures in East Asia."
One factor playing into the Great Game today is a perception of shifting U.S. priorities. The U.S. "has played a leading role in northeast Asia," Dr. Singh observes, but "is losing its edge both militarily and economically" with "new players" beginning "to challenge its long-held dominance and hegemony." As a result, he believes, "Korea and India are being forced to evolve new policy alternatives to protect their national interests."
Just how far either India or Korea is likely to go in their burgeoning defense relationship is far from clear. Korean firms have established close bonds in India. Hyundai, building small cars in Chennai, is now one of India's top car producers. A major Indian motor vehicle maker, Mahindra, owns a controlling stake in a minor Korean manufacturer, Sssangyong Motors. And POSCO for years has been battling bureaucratic red tape and local disturbances in hopes of building an enormous steel plant in the east central state of Odisha.
Korea, however, has reasons not to wish to appear to be aiding the enemy by selling arms to India. China is not only Korea's biggest trading partner but also a terrific place for Korean manufacturers to build plants. South Korea also needs to stay on good terms with China for the sake of China's relationship with North Korea. In the interests of "stability" on the Korean Peninsula, China has been discouraging North Korea from conducting a fourth nuclear test, much less violent episodes such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island with a loss of 50 lives in 2010.
Nonetheless, Defense Minister Parrikar is in the market for major Korean products that could someday be used against China. Dr. Singh notes. Korea minesweepers may well be built in a shipyard in the small west Indian state of Goa, over which Parrikar once presided as chief minister. India, moreover, is looking into a deal for Korea to train Indian fighter pilots. There is even a chance that India may import Korean artillery pieces and buy the technology to manufacture tanks.
Improbably, Dr. Singh says India might hint at a trilateral relationship with Korea and the U.S. ¡ª a deal "along the lines that India has with Japan." That, however, is unlikely. India also needs to nurture its relations with Russia, with which India has had close ties ever since the Cold War between the U.S. and the old Soviet Union.
In fact, India and South Korea are a rather odd couple. Far apart in terms of population, geography, size and manufacturing skills, they share one quality. They are democracies, imperfect no doubt but democratic enough for people to vote in open, free elections. That common denominator forms the background to the pitches that Parrikar is making this week for Korean weapons and expertise.
Columnist Donald Kirk spent most of 2013 in India and the month of February of this year in Pakistan. He's at email@example.com.