“New Delhi has shown increasing interest in the development of the Russian Far East in recent years. With rising stakes in the Indo-Pacific and emerging areas like the Arctic expected to create shifts in global economic and geopolitical landscape, New Delhi has expressed ambitions to cooperate with third parties to boost the infrastructural capacities in the RFE.”
India-Russia bilateral annual summit is scheduled to happen in the first week of December this year. In light of the 2020 summit being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s summit assumes greater importance as India and Russia look towards strengthening engagement in several areas amidst a volatile global geopolitical landscape. Beyond the events unfolding at the Poland-Belarussian border, Russia-Europe energy tussle, and the emerging ‘Cold War’ in the Indo-Pacific between US and China, the summit will be happening at a time when the much awaited and speculated arrival of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defence systems is under way in India. On one hand India and Russia will showcase the successful completion of the S-400 deal as a hallmark of India-Russia ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’, on other, the two nations will keep an eye on the impending CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions, which US would be putting on India due to the S-400 deal (CAATSA sanctions are imposed on countries making substantive new defence deals with countries considered by the US as adversaries) .
According to several experts and media sources, while Afghanistan will stay as a top agenda for India and Russia, the summit will also focus on combating terrorism, drug trafficking, extremism and increasing cooperation in fields like hydrocarbons, space, finance, connectivity, COVID-19 vaccines, atomic energy, and healthcare, among other areas. However, a key area which has should hold importance for this year is India’s ambitions in the Russian Far East region.
Why Russian Far East is Important?
Russia holds world’s largest known reserves of natural gas and a majority of these reserves are present in Russia’s Far East region or the RFE. This region comprises of the Far Eastern Federal district- the easternmost territory of Russia sandwiched between eastern Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. It shares land borders with Mongolia, China and North Korea, and maritime borders with Japan to the southeast and with the US to its northeast, with South Korea in close vicinity. With the global focus now shifting towards the Indo-pacific region, the RFE is expected to gain immense importance in the near future. This is both due to its mineral wealth, and due to the melting ice cover in the Arctic region, making the RFE a potential future hub for trade and shipping as well as hydrocarbon and mineral exploration in coming decades. However, the region will need large-scale infrastructural development and investment for realising its full potential.
Indian ambassador in Russia, D. Bala Venkatesh Varma recently highlighted India’s growing engagements with the RFE region for economic, commerical and geopolitical reasons. He noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act Far East Policy’ is a revolutionary step of huge geopolitical significance, and invariably, India’s role in the RFE forms a major part of India’s ambitions in strengthening relations with the surrounding Northeast Asian economies.
In September this year, while addressing the Eastern Economic Forum virtually, PM Modi expressed optimism that India and Russia together can bring stability in global energy market. Investments and close cooperation in the RFE are expected to be a major part of this optimism. Indian government has emphasised on coordination with Japan and South Korea for developing infrastructure and bringing investments to help in realising the full potential of energy capacities in the RFE. With many countries, especially Russia, Japan and South Korea now focusing on establishing Hydrogen economies in coming years, the region provides opportunities for India to collaborate with multiple partners in exploring Hydrogen technology.
In another perspective, any form of trilateral or minilateral cooperation will also provide a sort of strategic balancing in the regional geopolitics where China’s rise has been unrestricted in the last two decades. The first Trilateral Track II dialogue on India-Japan-Trilateral cooperation in the RFE was held in January this year. It noted the complementarities of capacities and convergence of interests among the three nations along with the inter-connected nature of regional development in the RFE. A similar framework with other potential members can be considered.
What Lies Ahead
With the weight of the global economy shifting eastward, Indo-pacific region is gradually rising in importance. India’s increased presence in this region would also mean a greater role in adjacent areas like the Arctic. With Moscow’s emphasis on developing the RFE to utilize the region on various fronts (energy, trade, security) in coming years, it is an opportunity for India to step in and aim at achieving multiple targets. By aiming well, India can not only establish a presence in the region and challenge China’s dominance but can also utilise this as a way to collaborate with the likes of Japan and South Korea (who have also been reeling under the same effects of a rising China and looking at mechanisms like QUAD for safeguarding their interests).
It was at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2019 when PM Modi announced the $1 billion line of credit for the development of the RFE. Since then, the Indian commitment towards the development of the RFE and investment cooperation in the region has been reaffirmed on several occasions. However, in many opinions the results have been low and slow. It has to be seen whether the upcoming annual summit will provide a roadmap to ramp up the efforts in the region or will yet again limit itself to reassuring about India’s interest in the region. Making the RFE a key agenda in the India-Russia annual summit would undoubtedly signal India’s firm commitment towards the Indo-Russian relationship at the same time when India is strengthening its cooperation with the west in the Indo-Pacific.