The Indo-Pacific “Cauldron” and Russia’s Role

Dr. Nalin  Mohapatra
June 22, 2019
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The phrase “New Great Game” gained wider popularity to capture the nature of US-Russia rivalry in Eurasian geopolitics in recent years.  The same phrase is gradually being used to describe the emerging geopolitical space of the Indo-Pacific. The major actors in the Indo-Pacific are the same as in the Eurasian region. However, their intentions are quite different in this new geopolitical construct. What one witnesses in the Indo-Pacific region is   “power realignment” largely aimed at controlling an ambitious China, which wants to dominate this space through its military might. This has been posing a threat to littoral states located in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. Another important aspect in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific is the onset of “trade war” between the United States and China, the two largest economies of the world, each trying to dominate the Indo-Pacific Corridor.

Russia, which shares a vast space of the Indo- Pacific region through its Far East region initially, paid little interest to the geopolitical developments in this region. Its stake in the region was primarily confined to resolving the territorial disputes with Japan or carrying out energy trade with China. However, “color revolutions” leading to regime change, “encirclement” of Russia due to growing Western influence and new rising economies altered the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia. This forced Russia to change its strategic behavior towards the region. The South Ossetian crisis followed by the Crimean crisis largely restructured the strategic framework of Eurasia. After the Crimean crisis, Russia faced financial sanctions imposed by the western countries led by the United States. This forced Russia to move eastward and using its strong relations with China, it tried to shape its Indo-Pacific strategy that aimed to garner strategic and economic advantages by revitalizing relations with South, Southeast Asian, East Asian and the Pacific countries.

Another important strategic consideration, which propelled Russia to strengthen its ties with the Indo-Pacific countries, is to checkmate the growing United States’ clout in the region. China’s “OBOR Strategy”, along with growing Russia-China strategic bonhomie has posed a direct security challenge to the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. This made Washington   “reboot” its ties with the Indo-Pacific countries. Stationing of its missiles in the region and decision to invest around “300 million dollars” to upgrade its military capability along with its objective to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific has impacted the evolving Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Thus, developments in the Indo-Pacific region are posing challenges as well as opportunities to Russia. To counteract it, Russia has been increasing its involvement in the Indo-Pacific ranging from ramping up strategic economic relations with vital economies of the region to playing a more active role in the North Korean nuclear imbroglio. The vast market of countries of this region (especially ASEAN countries, South Korea and Japan) is providing an expandable base for export of Russian defense products along with oil and gas. Japan is one of the largest investors in building energy infrastructure of Russia’s Far East and emerging as one of the largest customer for Russian LNG. Similarly, Russia is also involved in a strategic partnership with China in terms of exporting its energy resources. Beijing is one of the largest customers of its defense equipment and bailed out Russia from its financial crisis in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis. Recently, Russia has been seen to prop up both South Korea and Japan to checkmate the growing dominance of China in the Russian energy market.

It attempts to checkmate US’ influence in the Indo-Pacific, by  adopting a “two-prolonged strategy”.  Russia is developing its own bilateral military and defense cooperation with the countries of Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, it  in cooperation with China is also trying to strengthen the multilateral defense cooperation. Some noteworthy developments have been Russian naval ships’ military exercises in September 2018 in the Bering Sea near the American coast of Alaska and Moscow’s efforts to reach out to Philippines considered a staunch ally of the United States. During his visit to Manila, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu signed a number of key agreements relating to defense cooperation between the two countries in October 2017. As a result, three naval ships, part of the Pacific Fleet sailed to Manila in April 2019. Moreover, recent naval exercises conducted by Russia’s Pacific Fleet in the country’s Far East bordering Japan demonstrated that Moscow is here to stay in the Indo-Pacific region. Like the Philippines, with Indonesia also Russia is building “bridges” by providing assistance in cutting edge defense technology . Despite ASEAN countries actively opposed to Russia’s closest ally China, Moscow has been trying to build rapport with these countries.  Russia is also  involved in a strategic partnership agreement with the ASEAN and is an active participant in the East Asian Summit meetings.

The “strategic theater” of Indo-Pacific is becoming more complex as well as murkier in recent years. Strategic thinkers perceive a “New Cold War” in the region emerging, involving China and Russia on the one side and America on the other. The formation of informal groupings like JAI (Japan, America and India) and the strategic Quad involving Australia is also generating lot of misapprehensions in the mind of the Russian leadership. China has belligerent relations with all the JAI countries, spanning across the strategic, economic and security dimensions. On the other hand, Russia’s relations with Japan have improved considerably in recent years and with India, it is having a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.”  However, Russia is having somewhat bitter relationship with the US in recent years. In this strategic scenario, many strategic pundits contend that Moscow by aligning with Beijing is making the geopolitics of this region quite intricate.

The recent conduct of joint naval exercises by  both  Russia and China “Joint Sea-2019”  in May 2019 indicate that both want closer cooperation to tame the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. The “Joint Statement on Strengthening Global Strategic Stability” that Russia and China signed recently gave primacy to “regional stability,” which obviously implies strengthening peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. It is worthwhile noting that American and Russian warships averted a major crisis when they went into collision with each other in the Pacific Ocean region at time at a time when the Russian and the Chinese President were meeting in Moscow.

What one  witnessing in the Indo-Pacific region is a new form of “zero-sum game” where the US and China are at loggerheads with each other.  As a result, there is a growing strategic impasse in the region. It will be prudent for Russia if it pursues a stronger partnership with India, Japan, and other ASEAN countries through which it can ensure a “balanced” and “peaceful Indo-Pacific.” What Russia need in Indo-Pacific is closer cooperation with India, which can perform the role of a “balancer” not a “disrupter” like China.

*** The author teaches in CRCAS, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at ***