Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day Russia visit that concluded today came as business as usual to most of us. After all, this was his 55th foreign visit and fourth one to Russia as the prime minister. Yet this Russia visit of PM Modi was different. Secret lies in details.
This was the first instance of an Indian prime minister attending the East Economic Forum. The forum aims at bringing investment and development to what is known as the Russian Far East, a region extending between Lake Baikal – world’s largest freshwater lake and deepest lake, and the Pacific Ocean.
This is a region situated in the cold Siberian climate but more significantly, it shares borders with China, Mongolia, North Korea and Japan (maritime). On its own, it could be the eight largest – just behind India – in terms of area, and fourth least densely populated country. Both China and the US have been competing to have an upper hand in this region.
Realising its geostrategic significance, India opened a consulate in Vladivostok in 1992. India was the first country to have a resident consulate in Vladivostok then. This time, PM Modi was the chief guest of the Eastern Economic Forum.
PM Modi announced a credit line of $1 billion for the development of this region. During his visit, India and Russia agreed for a sea link between Vladivostok, the capital of Russian Far East and Chennai. This will reduce the transport time from existing 40 days to 24 days. An understanding for Vladivostok-Chennai sea link was reached last year when late Sushma Swaraj visited Russia as foreign minister.
This Vladivostok-Chennai sea link is somewhat a counter to China’s Maritime Silk Route (MSR) plan as part of One Belt One Road project. China’s ambitious MSR plan is about establishing and hence directly controlling Asia-Africa sea route.
“We are starting a new era of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region,” PM Modi declared before Russian President Vladmir Putin hugged him on completion of his speech. China has been aggressively pushing to expand its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Vladivostok-Chennai shipping link is likely to pass through or very close to the South China Sea, which China has turned into an international geostrategic hotspot by claiming exclusive control over the resource rich maritime zone in the Pacific Ocean. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have counter claims over the sea.
There is an alternate possibility as well that Vladivostok-Chennai link would become an extension of existing India-Japan Pacific to Indian Ocean Corridor, which China considers as a challenge to its maritime OBOR plan in the region.
In his speech, PM Modi said the Far East will become the bedrock of a strong Indo-Russia ties based on the principles of “rules-based order, sovereignty, respect for territorial integrity and is against engaging in the internal matters of other countries”.
The announcement of $1 billion line of credit is not really an investment by India but it still offers it to have a foothold in the Russian Far East. Seen from geostrategic lens, this gives India another vantage point to counter Chinese game of encircling India through what is called the String of Pearls policy.
Russian Far East is a resource rich region in a hostile climate. It is rich in oil, natural gas, timber, gold and diamond among other resources. India requires all of them. A busy Vladivostok-Chennai link means India strengthening its checks and balances equation with China.
Current engagement of India with this region is limited to select pockets such as Irkutsk where the MiG and Sukhoi fighter planes are built and in Sakhalin where ONGC Videsh has invested over $ 6 billion in oil and gas and exploration. The maiden visit by an Indian prime minister to Vladivostok is set to strengthen India’s position in Asia-Pacific that has emerged as the kernel of future geo-strategy.