Potential Paradigms of Connectivity: The Vladivostok Summit
Amb Asoke Mukerji, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The annual Summit mechanism between India and Russia, established during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first visit to India in October 2000, marks its 20th anniversary on 4-5 September 2019 in Vladivostok.

Today, Vladivostok is Russia’s main Pacific port. By hosting the Summit this port city becomes part of the fabric of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, defined by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi on 1 June 2018 as stretching from the “shores of Africa to that of the Americas”. It is worth noting that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, widely credited with the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific along similar holistic lines by including the entire Pacific and Indian Oceans, will also be present at Vladivostok for Russia’s Far Eastern Economic Forum meeting where Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi is the Chief Guest.

This is the first time that leaders of India and Russia will meet on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in this format. A flurry of high-level exchanges of visits before the Summit indicate the focus will be on leveraging Russia’s Far East as an additional driver of the “special and privileged strategic partnership” between India and Russia.

India’s focus on the Pacific in partnership with Russia has the potential to add an important maritime dimension to her bilateral and international interests. Russia is already investing in research and development in the maritime sector, including in the emerging Arctic region. Maritime technologies developed in Russia will be relevant for economic activities in the deep seas, including mining and fishing. Both these areas can become the drivers of India’s plans to become a major player in the Blue Economy of the region, contributing through innovation, technology, trade and employment to the transformation of India. This will be an important building block to implement India’s maritime policy of Security and Growth for All in the Region (or SAGAR), as articulated by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in March 2015. One project where India-Russia cooperation in the maritime domain can be implemented is the proposed deep-sea manned mission being conceptualized under India’s ‘Deep Sea Mission’, project by the National Institute of Ocean Technology in Chennai.

On the bilateral level, the thrust of the engagement through Russia’s Far East will be economic cooperation, with a focus on connectivity and manufacturing/processing enterprises.

Connectivity has become a leitmotif of Indian foreign policy. Vladivostok is well-placed to play a role in this framework. Established in 1860, Vladivostok was the base for the expansion of Russian trade to North America, separated from the Asian landmass by the 82-kilometer Bering Strait. Russian traders had acquired Alaska for the Tsar and established a settlement in California by 1840. Alaska was sold in 1867 by Russia to the United States for $7.2 million.

For maritime connectivity, work is already underway to add Chennai Port to the existing maritime route of Vladivostok-Mumbai that connects Russia’s Far East to India. Increased utilization of these maritime routes between Russia and India will emphasize the freedom of navigation along the international sea lanes of communication along the western Pacific Ocean. This includes the South China Sea route. Both India and Russia are signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and ratified it in 1996 and 1997 respectively. Strategically, this international legal framework would add substance to calls for free and open navigation in the Indo-Pacific region based on the ‘rule of law’.

Inland freight transport connectivity can emerge as another area for bilateral cooperation between the two countries after the Vladivostok Summit. This will be driven by the objective of India and Russia to deepen their economic cooperation to include the joint exploitation of the Russian Far East’s significant natural resources, including timber, energy and minerals. The infrastructure for transporting these products would rely on rail freight transport, where the growing links and interaction between Russian Railways and Indian Railways since the India-Russia Summit of 2015 will play a role. The creation of a dedicated rail freight corridor with Indian financial and human resources along the existing railroad alignment in Siberia and Russia’s Far East with its terminal at Vladivostok would have strategic implications as well.

Following the Vladivostok Summit, manufacturing/processing activities in the minerals, timber and agricultural sectors using resources from Russia’s Far East can become viable for India in Russia. This would reciprocate Russia’s increasing economic involvement in manufacturing in India, including in the already operational Kudankulam nuclear power reactor project, as well as in India’s diamond processing sector.

A third area where the Vladivostok Summit could unlock connectivity proposals is in tourism, which is critical to develop greater people-to-people contacts and awareness in both countries, especially for the younger generation. In 2017, almost 300,000 Russian tourists visited India. For several years, tour operators have discussed developing India-Russia outbound tourism links centering around Lake Baikal in Siberia, the world’s deepest fresh-water lake, and its main city, Irkutsk. The region includes major Russian Buddhist heritage sites, such as Buryatia, Tuva, and the Trans-Baikal province. The refurbished Trans-Siberian Railway runs through Irkutsk to Vladivostok through these Buddhist heritage regions of Russia. The spurt in India’s domestic airlines flying to international destinations, accompanied by a sharp increase in the volume of India’s global outbound tourism, expected to reach 50 million by 2020, will drive such tourism connectivity projects.

Russia has publicly endorsed India’s right to enact her domestic legislation on Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019. She extended support for India’s position on the “India-Pakistan Question” during the closed meeting of the UN Security Council convened at the request of China recently. India has reiterated her determination not to comply with unilateral sanctions imposed under domestic laws of the United States on Russia. This includes sectors like import of energy, and the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system. These developments underscore the significance of the Russian Far East dimension for the “special and privileged strategic relationship” between India and Russia, and for the evolution of the Indo-Pacific strategic concept.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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