Strategic Contours of India’s Engagement in Russia’s Far East and the Significance of Eastern Economic Forum (EEF)

Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra*

Strategic Contours of India’s Engagement in Russia’s

The successful completion of the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Russia’s Far East as Chief Guest to attend the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) which took place at Vladivostok from 3-4 September 2019 is considered to be a ‘game-changer’ as far strategizing India’s foreign policy towards the region in particular and Russia in general concerned.

Along with attending the EEF, he also met President Vladimir Putin of Russia for the annual bilateral summit meeting at the sideline of the EEF. Over a period of time, India has cemented its place in the global polity not only as an economic power but also a leading technological player. It is in this context, the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Russia has been quite significant. This is because, Russia, wants Indian investment in its Far East which will give a new dimension to the economic developments of this region. It will also “reboot” the strategic significance of this region which is located adjacent to the Indo-Pacific region. By inviting Indian Prime Minister as Chief Guest at the EEF, the Russian policymakers demonstrated that they are putting both India and China on equal footing in recent years though at a “normative framework’. It may be recalled here that only last year (2018), Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Forum as the Chief Guest.

Russia’s Far East which is considered to be an isolated geopolitical entity couple of years back is assuming the centre stage in recent years in the “geopolitical map” of Eurasia. The opening up of the Arctic region along with the growing significance of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), emergence of rising economies in the adjoining regions like China, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan, strategic realignment in the periphery of the Far East are some of the factors heightening the strategic significance of this part of Russia. It may be underlined here that realizing the potentiality of Far East as a strategic region the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outlined his “Asia-Pacific” vision at Vladivostok in July 1986. The strategic contour of the speech is proving true in recent year as this part of Russia is becoming the new “strategic economic corridor” for Russia’s external engagement.

As analysts argue there is a significant correlation between the global geopolitical developments along with its impact on the Far Eastern geo-economics. As has been discussed above, the growing competition over the Arctic region among various external actors are also heightening the importance of the region. Few additional security challenges like the one of growing millitarisation of the adjacent Indo-Pacific region is also posing a direct and indirect threat to the Russian security interests. Though there is a great deal of bonhomie between Russia and China, at the same time, the former, is also pushing for greater engagement with Japan also. This is happening despite the fact that the Kuril Islands dispute is acting as a stumbling block between Moscow and Tokyo. Along with this, the United States’ obsession (in the line of Alferd Mahan’s dictum of “Sea Power”) to get a foothold in the neighbouring Indo-Pacific region is also generating a sense of anxiety for Putin.

Some of these above narratives are providing a strategic framework, to understand the dynamics of the geopolitics of the Far Eastern region and its spillover effect on the strategic approaches of Russia. The Russian policymakers on the other hand, in recent years, have also taken a number of steps to make the Far Eastern region as a viable economic unit of the country. Moscow took this initiative to ensure huge Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in this part of Russia. In addition to this Moscow is also interested in harnessing the natural resources to ensure equitable development of the region.

The emergence of Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in 2015 is one such attempt on part of Russia to navigate its foreign policy in the post-Crimean crisis. As Russia faced massive financial crunch along with sanctions, it outlined the “Asia Pivot” policy just to expand its sphere of influence in the Asian region. Along with this, Russia, also eulogized its own version of “Monroe Doctrine”, in the form of “Greater Eurasia”, aimed at stretching its geopolitical imaginative border beyond the post-Soviet space.

The fruition of EEF as an important regional economic bloc since 2015 is such an attempt to navigate Russian foreign policy in the Asian security framework. As has been observed, EEF is not only aimed at “building bridges” with the adjoining rising economies of the world along with augmenting the existing infrastructure of this region. This will also facilitate greater integration with mainland Russia. It is in this context Kremlin launched its new policy known as “Pivot to the East”. India’s engagement in the Far Eastern region can be understood in the context of its overall strategic partnership with Russia. Over the years, New Delhi is also becoming an important player in the Indo-Pacific region which borders the Far Eastern region. These two vectors are providing a strategic framework for examining India’s engagement, in the Far Eastern part of Russia. Far Eastern region of Russia is quite significant for India because of its possession of rich natural resources like oil and gas resources along with its strategic location. As analysts argue the capital city of Far Eastern region, Vladivostok, can be a major hub for Indian industries for voyaging into the emerging markets of Indo-Pacific. As enunciated both at official and unofficial levels, the proposed maritime trade route, connecting “Chennai and Vladivostok” raises much hope, that the geographical isolation which India is suffering over the years in connecting with the Eurasian continent can be overcame as analysts and policy makers perceive.

Russia’s intentions to give India a larger role in the Far Eastern region was evident when the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia during his interaction with Indian industrial conglomerates in June 2019 highlighted the need for Indian investment in various sectors of the Far Eastern economy. One may recall here that the Indian energy conglomerates like OVL has already made a significant entry into the energy-rich Sakhalin 1 project since long. Apart from this New Delhi is also importing a bulk of LNG from Russia. In this regard, the Far East region is also known for producing such a large volume of LNG. If Indian energy conglomerates can invest in the oil and gas sector then it can be considered as “game-changer” as far as cementing energy relations between the two countries is concerned. This is happening, despite the fact that there are some minor irritants persists. By entering into the joint production with the Russian energy groups and exporting it to the neighbouring countries like South Korea, Japan and other southeast Asian countries, Indian energy industries can earn huge foreign exchange. As has been enshrined in the Joint Statement signed between both the countries during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India in November 2018, Russia “invited the Indian Side to invest in the Russian Far East.” Far East part of Russia also got much attention from Prime Minister Modi during the speech he delivered during his interaction with the visiting President Putin. He stated that “From the arctic to far East, and from sea to space, there will be an even greater expansion of India-Russia relations.” Even at the time of his interaction with Putin on the sideline Bishkek SCO Summit both Modi and Putin expressed the need for further cooperation in the Far Eastern region of Russia.

What will augment the trade between both countries is the signing of a Free Trade Agreement. Efforts are also on this way to include India in Russia’s pet project of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This will give much leverage to New Delhi in reaping the market of member states of EEU. Efforts in this direction have been made by both the sides at Vladivostok as the Joint Statement emphasized: “to further consider reducing restrictive measures through bilateral dialogue”. 

At the socio-cultural fronts also India shares a “Civilizational linkages” with the Far East region. Buddhism is one such connecting point. Similarly, Indian scholars have also mentioned about this region in their textbooks. Particular mention can be made about the writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak who in his book Arctic Home in the Vedas highlights cultural commonality and continuity between India and Russia (which includes Far East region).

The most interesting aspect of 5th EEF at Vladivostok is the outline of “Act East Far East” policy of India by Prime Minister Modi. As Prime Minister Modi in his speech at the Forum stated: “Today’s announcement will prove to be the take-off point of the Act Far East policy and it is my firm belief that this step adds a new dimension to our economic diplomacy.” He further stated that “India will provide a $ 1 billion line of credit to further contribute to the development of the Far East.” Prime Minister’s statement signifies how India is attaching significance to this region over the years. The Joint Statement signed between the two countries on the sidelines of EEF Summit also appreciated the participation of various Indian industries in the industrial activities of the region, ranging from diamond cutting to the oil and gas sectors. It is in this context the Joint Statement highlighted the need to augment bilateral trade to “$30 billion by 2025”.

One can conclude that India’s engagement with Russia’s Far East can only be studied in the context of developments both at the global and regional level along with the bilateral relationship between both the countries. What Russia needs is growing partnership with India in its Far East region to ensure a sustainable security environment.

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