India, South Korea and U.S. find themselves on same side in the Great Game for Asia

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DonKirk3By Donald Kirk,

Two very different visitors crossed paths in Seoul this week. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi bumped into each other after calling on President Park Geun-Hye at the Blue House. They’re old pals. Kerry and Modi have met in New Delhi and Washington and see eye to eye on a lot of things, notably their fears about conflict from one end of Asia to the other.

Among India’s greatest concerns is Pakistan, forever staging incidents along the “line of control” in divided Kashmir, and China, eager to nibble across the “line of actual control” between China and India in the high Himalayas. For Kerry, the worst problem in East Asia is North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-Un, ranks among the world’s most ruthless dictators.

U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry arrives in Seoul.
U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry arrives in Seoul.

Inevitably, Kerry’s worries are spread over a wider geographical spectrum than those of Modi.

While in Seoul, Kerry had to answer a question about the fall of Ramadi to ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

As a skilled diplomat and politician, he had no problem explaining away the Ramadi disaster, glibly dismissing that strategic city as one of those “targets of opportunity” that the bad guys have “the potential to destroy.” Anyway, he added for good measure, ISIL has already lost 30 percent of the land its forces had seized. Oh yes, he said, all the other countries in the region oppose ISIL.

If Modi and Kerry have different policies to pursue, they were both playing the Great Game for Asia.

Modi, coming to Korea from China and Mongolia, got down to the need for arms and defense equipment — a topic he avoided in Beijing and Shanghai as China provides no arms for India and is not going to help in building up India’s defense.

China does provide arms for Pakistan. So does the United States, but the U.S. also supplies arms to India.

So why was Modi talking to the Chinese when India and China have not been the best of friends since 1962 when India came out on the short end of the tug-of-war on India’s northern frontiers?

As in Korea, Modi was after trade and investment — but the sub-plot was to persuade the Chinese they would be better off investing in India than attacking it.

Kerry was playing another game, backing South Korea against North Korea while suggesting that China had the power to stop Kim Jong-Un from doing something stupid like order a fourth nuclear test.

With Modi and Kerry both in town, China was definitely a matter of mutual interest. They both believed that currying favor in Seoul was one way to deal with these overlapping but widely differing problems.

The Koreans had quite different messages for each of them. From the way Kerry talked about the brutality of Kim Jong-Un, it seemed clear that his hosts had convinced him that North Korean Defense Chief Hyon Yong-Chol had met a most cruel death at the end of April.

Kerry said, “the world is hearing more and more stories” about “the executions of those close to him … on the flimsiest of excuses.” The excuse in question, verifiable by a photo from Pyongyang, was that Hyon had nodded off while Kim Jong-Un was yakking.

Kerry was most emphatic about the tightness of the bond between the U.S. and South Korea — “no daylight, not an inch, not a centimeter” between us, he declaimed. “The biggest security concern we share is North Korea.”

Modi also protested his love for South Korea as a democratic nation with which India, the world’s largest democracy, shared common values. The two, President Park agreed, were bound in “strategic partnership.”

The real meaning of that term was that India wants South Korean firms to invest in the military and commercial enterprise.

With that strategic goal in mind, he left for Ulsan to visit Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest shipbuilder. What did he and HHI executives talk about? Yes, naval defense, warships. Modi would like HHI to either set up a shipyard in India for building minesweepers and other vessels or else show the Indians how to do it by themselves.

That’s just for starters. Modi also cited a need to improve rail networks, build more airports, develop infrastructure including highways and modernize its energy systems. No, he didn’t say that India was looking for nuclear reactors, which Doosan, Korea’s sole producer of reactors, would love to sell, but he did promise that India would greatly ease paperwork and regulations.

There was, in all the verbiage, a question of credibility. Will South Korea provide defense equipment that India needs? Are the U.S. and South Korea so close in their view of North Korea? In the Great Game, priorities and policies may change. As of now, Korea, India and the U.S. are more or less on the same side.

Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at

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