India and Russia are discussing the re-establishment of the direct Vladivostok – Chennai sea route said Nikolay Kudashev, the Ambassador of Russia in India, during his keynote address to the press on 21st December. The idea is to connect India and Russian Far East. Both countries are also working on enhancing the capacity of the North-South International Transport Corridor (INSTC).
Touching upon the trade between India and Russia, the ambassador noted that transport corridors are necessary for connecting the production and economic potential of the two countries. Ambassador Kudashev said: “more opportunities will be open with the re-establishment of the direct Vladivostok – Chennai sea route and enhancing the capacity of the North-South International Transport Corridor.”
The decision to revive the sea link happened during 2019 Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) meet and the annual Indo-Russia bilateral summit. The Indian and Russan officials signed a Memorandum of Intent on the Development of Maritime Communications between the Port of Chennai and the Port of Vladivostok.
The route was active in 1967 when Soviet Union based JSC SOVFRACHT and FESCO Transportation Group – Far Eastern Shipping Company began operating a new shipping service FESCO-India Line between Soviet Far East, South East Asia and India. In India, these ships called the Chennai and Calcutta ports. The shipping line operated three ships with a total capacity of 12000 tons till 1969. The average round voyage time was 90 days.
Vladivostok is the largest port on Russia’s Pacific coast and also the home to the Russian navy’s Pacific Fleet. The Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC) can potentially cut the cargo travel time to just 24 days compared to 40 days currently taken to transport goods from East Russia via Europe. Hypothetically, a large container ship travelling from Chennai, with cruising speed of 20 knots (international average), should reach Vladivostok in approximately 12 days.
Economic viability and Time frame
There is no known study or estimates of the economic benefits of the VCMC project. The trade between India and Russia remain dismal and lack volumes. Most of the non-military Indian – Russian trade is confined to heavy machinery, minerals, organic chemical, Pharma, fertilizers and to some extent vehicles. Vladivostok is a latently disputed by China and has a Chinese ethnic population of 22%. The Russian Far East mineral resources are tightly controlled by Russia and India has to compete with the Chinese and the Asian Tigers, which are located closer, to economically land its products in the port. Indian businesses are almost absent in the Russian Far East. The only known major Indian economic activity is ONGC Videsh’s Sakhalin-1 Project.
The other aspect is the that the project lacks a timeframe except that it is a part of the attempt by the two countries to increase bilateral investment to USD $ 50 billion and bilateral trade to USD $ 30 billion by 2025. “Those ambitious projects naturally need both legal support and customs convoy. Those are green corridors that will inevitably be needed for easing cargoes delivery to make sure that the confidentiality of our economic relationship meets the nature of confidentiality of our political ties,” explained Nikolay Kudashev during the press conference.
“Connectivity is the key to enhance trade and strategic partnerships as the Chinese BRI project suggests. Both the North-South Transport Corridor and the proposed Chennai-Vladivostok native corridor have strategic significance and tremendous potential for which all the stakeholders have to work sincerely with a singular focus. Compromising due to parallel geoeconomic considerations may be counterproductive. India will have to work harder through Chabahar while others must do their part. India’s focus on Far East Russia and New route could be a game-changer in due course both in terms of the economic potential of the Far East and the Arctic. Let’s hope it won’t be another two decades of implementation,” says Amb Anil Trigunayat (IFS Retd.).
The Security Aspect
Nearly half of the distance of approximately 5,600 nautical miles or about 10,300 km, the VCMC passes through internationally contentious waters of the South China Sea and Peter the Great Gulf. While Pakistan and the Chinese diplomacy challenge the Indian access to INSTC, the VCMC passes via the South China Sea, a fiercely contested patch of the ocean which Beijing considers its trampling ground.