The general perception is that the India-Russia strategic partnership, which once was truly and effectively higher than the mountains, deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey, has of late withered away. But think again, folks.
For example, it may be lesser known but a fact that India invested US$ 5.5 billion in the oil sector in Russia and the largest Russian investment in India is US$ 12.9 billion which can be termed as India's largest FDI till date which was concluded last month between oil giants Rosneft and Essar. This conveys how the age-old Indo-Russian partnership has not only rebounded but is also poised for giant leaps.
This relationship not only has been rebooted but is now going from strength to strength. It's an open secret how Russia played a stellar role in mediating between India and China over the Doklam standoff, amicably resolved between the two Asian giants on August 28 – well, at least for the time being.
But Russia's good offices to India can neither be confined to India-China power play nor be confined to the India-China matrix. Because, Russia has shown willingness and taken several concrete steps since then to demonstrate that all is well once again between India and Russia and the two nations are now cooperating to put China in place in various ways! Confused? Then read on.
One of the biggest strategic calls that Russia has taken is to throw open its resource-rich Far East to India for trade and investment with an eye to counterbalance China's mega influence in this region.
Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj last week paid an official visit to the Port City of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East and participated in a meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), which has recently emerged as the biggest international platform for cooperation among business leaders and senior government representatives from Russia, the Pacific Region and the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The visit was significant and loaded with strategic agenda as it was a rare foreign visit by the minister who doesn’t travel abroad frequently despite her portfolio after her kidney surgery earlier this year. Obviously, her rendezvous with her Russian interlocutors was important because of some unpublicized agenda. What was that? Here are the answers.
First of all, let it be known upfront for the uninitiated that Russia is unnerved by the rapid strides made by China in the Russian Far East much before President Vladimir Putin threw open the far-flung region for foreign investments in 2014. The Chinese entered the Russian Far East in hordes for many years so much so that they have already altered the region's demography and the region looks more like a Chinese land, rather than the Russian territory. Now Putin wants to correct this and is relying on friends like India to counter the Chinese influence in the region. His idea of course correction: not to keep all your eggs in one basket (read China). Putin is convinced that the Indians will be more acceptable to the local population than the Chinese and will be looked upon as more "benign" than the Chinese.
Russia is a great friend of China and in many ways a strategic ally – but only on paper. Actually Russia looks at China with suspicion and more as a rival. And in regions like the Russian Far East and the CIS countries (where the Chinese have already made deep inroads at the expense of Russia) Moscow looks at Beijing more as a Frenemy. That’s why the Russian open-door policy to India in its Far East.
Swaraj's Vladivostok visit is a demonstrator of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership which is getting back on track and is going from strength to strength. It also conveys the growing Indian interest in the Russian Far East for the emerging opportunities there. She laid down the key role the Russian Far East is likely to play in the coming years in realizing the Indo-Russian joint vision of achieving a bilateral trade of $30 billion by 2025. This is what she said: "I would like to reiterate our invitation to regions and businesspersons of the Far East to visit India...Greater trade, commerce, and investment with the Far East will help us in achieving the target of 30 billion US dollars that we have set for our bilateral trade by the year 2025.”
During her Vladivostok visit, Swaraj participated in the opening ceremony of the EEF on September 6 and held bilateral meetings with Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Governors of some of the Far Eastern Regions. Swaraj is the third high-profile Indian leader to visit Russia this year. Earlier in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited St. Petersburg, followed by Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s visit. The high-level Indian participation in the Vladivostok Forum follows the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Guest of Honour at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2017.
Russian Far East is the new area of cooperation in Indo-Russian strategic partnership at Russia's own initiative to counter China's influence in the region which has already become phenomenal. Here, in this particular context, Russia trusts India more than China. Russia is apprehensive of China resorting to "salami slicing" tactics to nibble into its territory, a remark made by Indian army chief Gen Bipin Rawat in a different context which riled China no end. If India makes a success of its mission in the Russian Far East then Russia can replicate this model in Central Asia and facilitate greater presence of India in all spheres in this region where again Russia is leery of Chinese forays.
(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha)