Thursday, January 29, 2015

Korea-India economic ties slow to take off

First published in The Korea Herald.

It has now been five years since the India-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement ― a de facto free trade agreement ― went into effect, but the trade statistics do not present a very rosy picture.

It was widely anticipated that the CEPA, which came into effect in January 2010, would lead to more bilateral trade and investments. South Korea has abolished tariffs on 93 percent of Indian imports, and India has done the same on 75 percent of Korean imports. Besides, the agreement sought to increase the interactive trade account, as it includes investment in various sectors like goods, services and even intellectual property.

However, according to the latest statistics released by the Korea International Trade Association, while bilateral trade has slightly improved, it is still way below expectations.

Bilateral trade between both countries was $12.15 billion in 2009, which spiked to $17.11 billion in the first year of the agreement. However, since then, it has been a rollercoaster ride, increasing to $20.55 billion in 2011, and then falling to $18.84 billion and $17.57 in the following two years. In 2014, bilateral trade inched up a little to $18.05 billion ― well below the CEPA target of $30 billion.

Clearly, there is something wrong here. Even as Korea’s bilateral trade with the U.S. and the European Union has leaped, its economic relationship with India appears to be stumbling.

It is a wonder what happened to the grand proclamations that were made when the CEPA was being negotiated and finally signed.

Clearly, while considerable scope exists, it is not possible to pump up trade between both sides without government efforts. It is all the more important for South Korea to do so, as its economy has thrived on export-led industrialization.

Now, coming to the foreign investment figures. According to the latest statistics published by Eximbank Korea, total Korean investments in India to the end of 2014 amounted to just $3.53 billion ― 1.3 percent of their $270.43 billion overseas investments.

In comparison, Korean companies have pumped $49.69 billion into China, $15.70 billion into Hong Kong, $10.72 billion into Vietnam, $7.96 billion into Indonesia and $6.02 billion into Singapore. In the entire Asian region, Korean companies have invested $115.57 billion.

Looking at it from India’s point of view, the latest available analysis of FDI equity inflows by the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion shows that Korea continues to rank low with only around $1.5 billion in investment.

Clearly the economic ties are still way below potential and CEPA has not really been very effective.

It is true that large Korean brands are household names in India and their strength has grown in the years since they first started operations. However, the fact remains that Korean FDI inflows have been growing at a very tardy pace, and companies seem to be keener to explore other emerging markets.

Many Korean companies were the first movers as FDI investors in India, following the spate of reforms and liberalization since 1991. They started to invest by forming joint ventures with local companies or established wholly owned subsidiaries, predominantly in automobiles and white consumer goods. With clever business models, they managed to make deep inroads into the Indian market in a relatively short period of time, led by technology giants Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Hyundai Motor. More recently Lotte Group, Doosan Heavy Industries and POSCO have become familiar names in the Indian business lexicon.

It may come as a surprise, therefore, that India figures quite low on the list of favored investment destinations for Korean companies.

Part of the explanation could be the nontariff barriers that continue to exist in India. The main irritants for Korean companies there are poor infrastructure, corruption, labor management, taxes, administrative services, fluctuating government policies at the central and state levels, political intervention, and customs and clearance procedures. Such uncertain policies have made investors opt for divestment or delaying their planned investment as they consider India a less attractive investment outlet than other Asian countries.

A case in point is the troubles faced by POSCO in India ever since it decided to start operations there. It has still not gotten clearance to start full-scale operations and the latest news suggests that there could be further delays.

As for Indian investments in Korea, among the noticeable investors are Tata Motors (which acquired Daewoo Commercial Vehicle in 2004); Novelis Inc., a subsidiary of Hindalco Industries Ltd. (which acquired Alcan Taihan Aluminum Limited in January 2005); and Mahindra and Mahindra (which acquired Ssangyong Motors in March 2011). Among the smaller investors are Nakhoda Ltd. and Creative. While Indian software companies such as TCS, Wipro and L&T Infotech have a small presence in Korea (with representative offices), they have not made any large commitments.

Does this mean that Korea does not offer any potential for Indian businesses? On the contrary: As an FDI destination, the nation has several strengths compared to China and Japan.

The economies of India and Korea are highly complementary in terms of factor endowment, capabilities and specialization. If the investment barriers are effectively tackled, India’s cost-effective human resources may complement growing labor scarcity and rising wages in Korea, and a number of companies may consider India an ideal destination for their relocation or global sourcing.

As experts have noted, India’s booming knowledge-based service industry complements the hardware and manufacturing-based economic structure of South Korea. India’s capability in the pharmaceutical, IT software and auto components industries usefully complement Korean competence in heavy engineering, automobiles, machinery and electronic hardware.

So it is all the more important for the two governments to become more active in sorting out the problems and realizing the full potential of the CEPA. India could make a conciliatory gesture and give permission to POSCO to start full-fledged operations.

Luckily for Korea, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ― unlike his predecessor ― is business-friendly. Realizing this, most of the advanced countries are rushing to strengthen ties, with U.S. President Barack Obama even making a second state visit to India during his tenure ― something unprecendented ― and has accepted the invitation to be India’s Chief Guest at its Republic Day celebrations on Monday ― the first by a U.S. president. Modi has promised to bring sweeping economic reforms to make doing business in India easier. He is well on his way to doing it, and it not too late for the Park administration to take the initiative and sort out the problems plaguing trade and investment relations by initiating a comprehensive dialogue.