Russia’s Far East city of Vladivostok will once again host the annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) on 2-4 September. This year’s theme is “The Opportunities For The Far East In A World Under Transformation” and its business program is divided into four pillars: “The New Economy: What Changes And What Stays The Same?”, “The Far East: New Challenges And Opportunities”, “Our Shared Responsibility In A Changing World”, and “Youth EEF”. Russia will also hold business dialogues with ASEAN, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Of all of Russia’s many partners in this region, however, India is arguably the most important.
The 2019 EEF saw President Putin host Prime Minister Modi as his guest of honor, during which the Indian leader unprecedentedly extended a $1 billion line of credit for developing the Far East. The two sides also unveiled the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC), which stands to become one of the world’s most promising trade routes because of the large number of potential partners along the way. These include the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and the ASEAN states. Since then, Russia has also encouraged India to invest in Arctic energy projects, thus expanding the geographic scope of the South Asian state’s Eurasian strategy.
Russia treasures India as its special and privileged strategic partner, and this unique relationship goes back half a century. Although some differences in vision have arisen over the past few years when it comes to contentious topics such as the New Cold War between the American and Chinese superpowers, the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), and the Afghan peace process, Russian-Indian relations remain an irreplaceable element of stability in an increasingly chaotic world. It’s therefore among the highest priorities for both of them to continue enhancing their strategic partnership.
This can most effectively be achieved through India playing an even greater role in developing Russia’s Far East region since there’s a mutual desire for this to happen. Russia regards India as a trusted partner and admires how rapidly it could develop its own economy over the past several decades. It also recognizes that its ally has the excess capital needed to finance relevant projects in this part of the country, including large-scale ones, especially because it needs reliable access to Russian resources. Both of them also have a strategist interest in preventing the Russian Far East from falling too strongly under the influence of China and its companies.
To be clear, Chinese investment is welcome everywhere in Russia and Moscow sincerely considers Beijing to be one of its top partners anywhere in the world, but all countries have a natural interest in preemptively doing what’s needed within responsible limits to offset the possible scenario of becoming disproportionately dependent on any single partner. India is Russia’s and China’s partner in BRICS and the SCO, and their trilateral coordination through the RICs format is one of the defining characteristics of Eurasian geopolitics in the emerging Multipolar World Order.
Although Indian-Chinese relations are currently very complicated, these two Great Powers are still interacting with one another pragmatically, don’t have any desire to further worsen their ties, and share common ground through their strategic partnerships with Russia. India’s growing economic presence in Russia’s Far East poses no threat to Chinese interests, nor would Moscow ever allow such a perception to come to pass considering its equally special and privileged relations with the People’s Republic. To the contrary, Russia might even intend to leverage India’s role there to promote a rapprochement between those two.
To explain, Indian businesses in Russia’s Far East might one day consider expanding their commercial relations with China because of how convenient it would be for them to easily reach the world’s largest marketplace from there. China remains India’s top trade partner despite their complicated relations, but there’s a palpable distrust between them owing to their recent perceptions of the other as a competitor. It could therefore go a long way to improve this trust deficit if Indian companies in Russia’s Far East started trading with China. Such a development would truly be in all of their interests, since everyone would benefit.
One of the contemporary challenges of Indian grand strategy is to transition from its geopolitically premised outlook to a geo-economic one in accordance with the trend that’s recently caught on among most of the world’s Great Powers. China’s BRI, Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP), and the US’ “New Quad” with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan (which agreed in February to pioneer a railway between them to function as a new North-South trade corridor between Central Asia and the Indian Ocean Region) is evidence of this. It’s therefore time for India to incorporate a similar economic dimension to its Indo-Pacific policy.
Such a vision already exists in principle, but it’s perceived by the Chinese as intended to compete with BRI, especially in ASEAN. This viewpoint has inadvertently contributed to worsening their mutual distrust. What’s therefore needed is a credible proof of concept which shows that the economic dimension of India’s Indo-Pacific policy isn’t aimed at China, or at least not entirely. Therein lies the relevance of increasing India’s economic role in Russia’s Far East since that country is also China’s shared partner and Indian companies there might trade with the People’s Republic, thus gradually helping to restore the lost trust between them.
Even better would be if India and China jointly cooperated on a flagship project in Russia’s Far East, even if it’s only mostly a symbolic one. Russia would benefit from the development that such an initiative could bring, as well as the optics of helping to bridge the trust deficit between its two most equally important partners. Likewise, India and China would realize that they don’t always have to compete with one another but can cooperate in pursuit of shared goals such as developing their shared Russian partner’s geostrategically located and resource-rich region.