Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be the chief guest at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok this week. The Forum, having begun in 2015, provides a platform for discussion on the global economy, regional integration, business dialogues and technological collaborations, especially with the Asia-Pacific neighbours. Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, and a few other leaders from Asia-Pacific would also attend this Forum. Rajan Kumar specially for The Financial Express.
The primary purpose of this Forum is to involve neighbouring countries in the development of Russia’s resource-rich but relatively underdeveloped regions of Siberia and the Far East. The fact that India has been invited to this meeting throws up some curious questions. On the face of it, the visit of Modi might go down as an extension of the annual bilateral summit in a new template. But looking beyond the obvious, one observes a well-conceived Russian bid to engage India in its Asia-Pacific strategy.
Russia’s evolving Asia-Pacific strategy is premised on the following postulations: the West is on a path of irreversible decline, and Asia will remain the engine of growth in the near future; a strong partnership with China is key to its growth, and to offset the US influence in Eurasia and Pacific; it must reinforce ties with key regional players such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India to attract capital, and to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon; and finally, a close integration of Siberia and the Far Eastern region to the economies of the Asia-Pacific is essential for its regional stability.
The slowdown of the European economy and an urgent need to diversify its market contributed to Russia’s Asia-Pacific turn. Western sanctions on Russia, following the crisis in Ukraine, expedited this process. Left with no choice at that stage, Russia became a perfunctory advocate of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and now wants to align it with the Eurasian Economic Union. Not surprisingly, China became one of the biggest investors and trading partners of Russia. Russia, however, is cautiously engaging with other countries to avoid its dependence on China. Japan has 30 percent states in Sakhalin-1 and 22.5 per cent in Sakhalin-2. Russian supplies meet nearly 10 per cent of Japanese gas demand. South Korea has shown interests in energy, ship-building and agricultural processing. Japan and South Korea believe that economic cooperation will facilitate the normalising of diplomatic ties. It also gives them leverage in dealing with the US. However, they think that Russia is not putting enough pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear programme.
The disputed claims over four Kuril islands (or Northern Territories of Japan) remain a thorny issue between Japan and Russia. Russia is opposed to South Korea’s decision to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile shield with the help of the US. These disputes, nonetheless, have not deterred Russia from engaging with these countries. Russia wants to chip away at American advantages in the region by improving ties with its allies. Bringing India on board can be seen as a part of its broader strategy to balance China’s expanding influence in the region.
The development of the Far Eastern region has become a national priority for Russia. In the past, attempts were made to connect these regions through Trans-Siberian Railways and the Baikal-Amur Mainline, hydropower plants, mining and academic centres. Yet they remained peripheral in terms of economic and political integration. In recent years, Moscow has reoriented its developmental strategy wherein the Far Eastern Federal District, Siberia and the Arctic region have become pivotal. The biggest challenge, however, is the population scarcity and poor infrastructure. The Far Eastern District has a population of merely 8 million, and a territory which is more than twice the size of India. To develop this region, Russia is creating 20 Advanced Special Economic Zones and the Free Port of Vladivostok. The Free Port project has eased the visa restrictions. The economic growth in the Far East district is 4 per cent, which is double the rate of the national average.
Since 2014, nearly 30 per cent of the total foreign direct investment come to this region. Russia is wooing Indian investments in its Far East. India has already invested in Imperial Energy (Tomsk, Siberia) and Sakhalin-1 oilfield (Far East). Experts believe that there is immense scope for cooperation in the field of energy, mining and agriculture processing industry. Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, announced the proposal of dedicated energy-corridor to import oil, gas and cooking coal from the Far Eastern region. Labour is a significant issue in the scarcely populated area of the Far East. Indian companies can provide both capital and labour for such projects. Russia should take advantage of India’s demographic dividend, which can be a permanent, reliable and non-threatening source of skilled and cheap labour.
At a broader geopolitical level, how does India align its Indo-Pacific strategy with Russia’s Asia-Pacific approach? Russia’s presence in the Indian Ocean is insignificant, while India is yet to have its firm footprints in the Pacific. They need to calibrate, converge and harmonise their interests. This idea was articulated forcefully by India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar during his visit to Moscow last month: “India is a strong power in the Indian Ocean with a serious interest in the Pacific Ocean, Russia is a strong Pacific power with an interest in the Indian Ocean.” They should join hands to protect their interests and ensure maritime security. He further elaborated that the Indo-Pacific project seeks to connect the artificially broken regions of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
During British imperialism, India was at the centre of Indo-Pacific project, which was replaced by North-East Asia during the Cold War under the US hegemony. Indo-Pacific project bids to connect the countries of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It underlines the importance of free navigation as stipulated by the international law of the sea, and reinforces the centrality of India and South East Asia which have had historical and cultural ties. It is not directed against any other country. Jaishankar reminded that the way Russia is collaborating with India in the Eurasian landmass, they can also partake in the maritime security projects in the Indo-Pacific.
This collaboration, nonetheless, is easier said than done. India is a member of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with Australia, Japan, and the US. India, the US and Japan also participate in Malabar military exercises. The Quad and military exercises are presumably directed against maritime expansionism of China in the South China Sea and the Pacific. Given the current level of hostility between the US and Russia, and collaboration at this stage seems unlikely. India and Japan, however, can join hands in developing joint projects in the Far Eastern region of Russia. Japan can also help India in developing energy-corridor from the Far East to India. Similarly, some experts believe that Russia can contribute to the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor- a cooperation agreement between Japan, India and African states.
To sum up, the Eastern Economic Forum can open up some new avenues of cooperation between India and Russia. They have an exemplary record of managing the relationship in the fields of defence, military cooperation, nuclear energy, space, mining, culture and diplomacy. Recently, they resolved the issue of advance payments for the S-400 Triumf missile system despite acute American pressures. Their successes at the bilateral front can be replicated at a wider multilateral front for the Asia-Pacific. India’s outreach in the Pacific, and Russia’s involvement in the Indian Ocean will mark a new beginning in the realm of maritime security, and take the partnership to a new level. This, however, requires meticulous navigation when headwinds are definitively unfavourable.
Author teaches at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.