The Russian Pivot in the Indo-Pacific

Dr. Vivek Mishra
October 20, 2019


Image Courtesy: Financial Times

Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Vladivostok as the Chief Guest for the Fifth Eastern Economic Forum and his participation in the 20th India-Russia Annual Summit have tremendous potential in strengthening India’s strategic leverage in the Pacific theatre. Among other agreements, the visit resulted in a Memorandum of Intent, which was signed to open a full-fledged maritime route between Russia’s eastern port city and Chennai on India’s eastern seaboard. This is important in the light of the Indian Navy’s expanding outlook, its net-security-provider role, and for a regional dispersal of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which suits its geostrategic aspirations. The move to connect India’s peninsular coast with Russia’s Far East broadens India’s Indo-Pacific vision and balances India’s existing goals in the IOR with future aspirations in the Pacific theatre. An Indo-Pacific connection with Russia seeks to make its regional policy more partner-inclusive and underscore India’s balanced approach on either side of the Strait of Malacca.

While the main objective of this connection will be energy transport, its route-potential for India is likely to increase once the $1 billion Line of Credit by India to Russia gets fully utilized and increases exports from Russia’s Far East. Once functional, the route for export carrying vessels will follow a long trail: from the port of Vladivostok in Russia, crossing the Sea of Japan, dissecting the East China Sea and the Philippines Sea, then passing through the South China Sea it will reach the Strait of Malacca. After crossing the Strait, the vessels will enter the Andaman Sea and parts of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean before stopping at the Chennai Port. This long route is expected to take more than 20 days, where the better part of the period for the exports on the sea will be spent in the Pacific theatre. This will require coordination, monitoring as well as newer partnerships for providing security to the long, intensely contested and varied Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) by both India and Russia, in turn generating substantive Pacific-leverage for both countries in the future.

In a theater that has been dominated by the US and China, Russia has hitherto been a peripheral Indo-Pacific power, and the move to strengthen ties with India through the maritime domain is centered around finding regional space and economic footprints for its economy that is still reeling under continued western sanctions. Since the Cold War days, Russia has had a Pacific deficit vis-à-vis the US. During the Cold War and until 2002, the Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam was the only military presence in the Pacific for the Soviet Union and Russia, while the US had half a dozen military alliances that continue till today. Since 2013, Russia has been trying to reinvigorate its relationship with Vietnam, and its engagements pivoted at the strategic Cam Rahn Bay. Particularly over the last decade, Russia’s efforts to create navigable space in the Indo-Pacific and its efforts to better relations with China, Japan, and India can be seen from the Indo-Pacific prism.

There are multiple strands of close bilateral cooperation between India and Russia emerging from the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi, but the most reassuring is the consolidation of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, making it ‘inclusive’ in the true sense. India has harped on the addition of the word ‘inclusive’ in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) narrative led by the US. With respect to the Indo-Pacific, India’s position has marked a nuanced difference with other countries, particularly the three other members of the Quadrilateral Initiative (Quad). Although there continues to be a substantial degree of flux in the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific, even as conjoining the strategic rationales of the Pacific theatre and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has proved to be a persistent challenge between nations on either side of the Strait of Malacca. Through its subtly different strategy, India has carefully sought to parse the Indo-Pacific into its two constituent interpretations; the first that is akin to a regional strategy and is closer to its heart, while the other is comprehended in terms of a grand strategy. These two subtly different conceptions of the Indo-Pacific allow New Delhi to wade in both, with advantages and risks simultaneously. Russia’s emerging role in the Indo-Pacific and its relations with India are critical to this conceptually nuanced difference in the Indo-Pacific, especially in its ability to generate regionally dispersed leverage for New Delhi in the Pacific theatre of this vast region.

The strategic reasoning to India’s Russia pivot has strengthened in the aftermath of the PM’s visit and can be seen in tandem with some recent trends in India’s desire to enhance its Pacific leverage. The proposed route from Vladivostok to Chennai will pass through contested waters in the South China Sea (SCS). By drawing Russia, a close economic partner of Beijing, and a major power, India has drawn the limits of China’s likely response to future Indian ships’ presence in the SCS. There is also an emerging trend in India’s efforts to create its own Pacific leverage for a balanced Indo-Pacific strategy. Recently, India and South Korea inked a naval logistics sharing pact and pledged support to each other’s navies and creating an important pit stop for its ships. India also conducted a group sail with naval ships of Japan, Philippines, and the United States of America in the South China Sea in May this year. Most recently, India led the narrative on safeguarding Freedom of Navigation in the SCS when China entered Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone last month. The chorus was later joined by France, UK, and Germany.

Amidst trends of fairly strong US-India relations, strengthening India-Russia relations is a sign of India’s increasing ability to balance between major powers, most of which are themselves unsure of their footing in the Indo-Pacific. India’s Indo-Pacific strategy has the potential to mitigate regional and extra-regional spill-over of great power competition, especially by attenuating Russia-Japan, China-India, and even US-China hostilities through its ability to partner countries on either side of the power spectrum.

*** The author is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. He is Assistant Professor, International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata (en lien). He was a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War & and Peace, School of International Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York for the academic year 2015-2016. ***