When Trump was in power, the entire world was talking about Quad as an informal alliance that would bring Xi Jinping’s tyrannical regime to an end. But with Biden, it is as if the Quad has run out of steam. Yet, the Quad may now regain its lost glory as South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol comes to power.
Even as Yoon Suk-yeol took oath as South Korea’s President, India didn’t waste a moment to congratulate him and establish close working coordination with the new administration.
India’s outreach to yeol may seem like a diplomatic formality, but there is more to it. In the yeol regime, India looks at an opportunity to establish a stronger India-South Korea alliance and drive China dove Biden out of the Quad.
India has been looking to let Seoul know that it is eager to work with the Yoon Suk-yeol (YSY) administration.
On March 10 itself, PM Modi congratulated YSY, while stating that he was looking forward to working with him on further expanding and strengthening the India-ROK “Special Strategic Partnership”.
Days before his inauguration, India’s ambassador in Seoul, Sripriya Ranganathan, called on Yoon and reiterated the commitment towards scaling up India-South Korea relations.
And finally, PM Modi again congratulated Yoon after his swearing-in. PM Modi tweeted, “I extend my heartfelt greetings and good wishes to ROK President @sukyeol__yoon as he commences his term in office today. I look forward to meeting him soon and working together to further strengthen and enrich the India-ROK ties.”
Given India’s outreach to Yoon, it seems that the South Korean President could receive one of those special hugs from the Indian Prime Minister when they first meet. So, what makes the new South Korean President so special and what does it mean for the Indo-Pacific?
India-South Korea alliance to take on China
India and South Korea have maintained close strategic ties for over a decade now.
However, under Moon Jae-in, the relationship got somewhat stagnated. Moon had a soft policy towards China due to South Korea’s business interests and he wasn’t ready to take bold decisions against Beijing.
This meant that the India-South Korea alliance couldn’t go much beyond economic cooperation and the strategic dimension of the bilateral relationship was left unexplored.
Yoon is however different. He is a conservative leader and naturally hawkish on the China front. Throughout his election campaign, the newly-elected South Korean President had promised to take a hard line on Beijing.
In an article in the Foreign Affairs before the elections, YSY had even made a veiled criticism of outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s policy of refusing to take a firm stance on China’s unfair actions. He has alleged that South Korea’s reluctance to take a stand on China’s unfair actions was creating an impression that Seoul was tilting towards Beijing.
India would therefore be more than willing to work with a China hawk like YSY. For India, YSY’s accession to power helps reignite the anti-China sentiment in the Indo-Pacific.
Reshaping the Quad
Meanwhile, South Korea could also help reshape and revitalise the Quad. Moon had a policy of reviving anachronistic and historical disputes with Japan. This made South Korea’s closer integration with Quad next to impossible because no Quad country could accept a country that remains critical of Tokyo.
However, Yoon has said that poor Seoul-Tokyo relations have backfired for South Korean companies. Therefore, he has asserted that South Korea should rebuild confidence through frequent interactions with Japanese officials. This would make South Korea an acceptable component in Quad.
In fact, South Korea’s positioning as a possible Quad partner could come at the expense of the US. Biden, a China dove, has been defiling the Quad by repeatedly bringing in extraneous issues like the Ukraine war whereas the Quad was always supposed to be a strategic forum for containing Chinese hegemony.