By Srinivasan K. Rangachary
A billion-dollar credit line, a blueprint for cooperation in the Siberian and Arctic hydrocarbons sector, 50 contracts involving the region’s natural resources and a maritime link between Vladivostok and Chennai: these are the ingredients of the “Act Far East” initiative that Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled during his visit to Vladivostok last week.
Besides reaffirming commitment to the India-Russia partnership and broadening the base of bilateral cooperation, it made the important geopolitical point that India and Russia have shared economic and security interests in the Indo-Pacific (with the Arctic as an important adjunct). The Indo-Pacific is the oceanic space between the Pacific seaboard of the United States and the shores of eastern Africa (though it is being used here for the segment east of India). India is strategically located on its maritime corridors, through which the bulk of global trade passes.
Over 90 per cent of India’s foreign trade, including most of our oil supplies and about half our LNG imports is through the Indian Ocean. Its marine resources are of economic value. Arms, human and drug trafficking, poaching of sea-bed resources and sea-borne terrorism are security threats. Protection of these sea lanes is therefore of vital interest to India and the wider region. It follows that we cannot accept the hegemony of another country in these waters. China’s aggressive actions in its bordering seas and its strategy of port development across the Indian Ocean, as part of the Maritime Silk Road (the oceanic leg of its Belt and Road Initiative), present the threat of just such a hegemony. The essence of New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy is to parry this threat – by enhancing naval strength, diplomatic engagement with China and partnering with countries that share this interest.
The US is prominent among these countries. The Modi-Trump joint statement of June 2017 describes the India-US partnership as “central to peace and stability in the region”. The India-US-Japan “Malabar” naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the revival of the India-US-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) were supportive signals. Our Act East policy aims to strengthen cooperation with Southeast Asia, engage closely with Japan, Korea and Australia, and to promote multilateral initiatives with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Bay of Bengal littorals for a common approach to security issues. There are other bilateral and multilateral dialogues between countries in the region.
This flurry of diplomatic activity seeks to establish an equilibrium of forces in the region that would safeguard the interests of all countries. But this security architecture has proved difficult to define: there are different perspectives about its content, the path to achieving it and the role of regional and extra-regional countries in it. The recent political, economic and military developments in the Indo-Pacific have invalidated the Cold War construct of a US security umbrella over the region. That construct was based on a Soviet Communist threat. China, after its rapprochement with the US in 1972, was more or less neutral. Today, it is the dominant force in the region and a strategic partner of Russia.
The US’ Cold War anti-communist compact with Asean, Japan, Korea and Australasia has dissolved, inevitably diluting the US commitment. A new multi-polar approach to security is needed. It cannot be antagonistic to China, since virtually every country in the region is militarily vulnerable and economically dependent on China. It can be viable only if there is military capacity in the region, since an extreme asymmetry is inherently destabilising. This is where Russia comes in. It is, as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reminded in a recent speech in Moscow, a Pacific naval power. President Putin’s ambition for Russia is to restore the influence in global affairs that the Soviet Union had. Russia should, therefore, be an active, independent participant in the effort for Indo-Pacific security architecture, not merely an adjunct to Chinese ambitions.
Russia has been hostile to the concept of Indo-Pacific, seeing it as a US scheme to drag India into an alliance, together with Japan. This view does not appreciate the fact that, though India and the US have convergent perspectives on the Indo-Pacific and many shared interests in their strategic partnership, they do not have a total congruence of interests that characterises an alliance.
Moreover, even if we do not take into account the benefits of our partnership with Russia and the intricacies of our relations with China, it would be geopolitical folly for India to form an alliance with a distant power, however strong, that would draw the hostility of two proximate big powers. Russia has re-engaged with the Asian region in recent years. It has strengthened its political and defence ties with Vietnam, reinvigorated its relations with Asean and is engaging intensively with Japan to settle their decades-old territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands.
President Putin’s vision for a larger Russian role in global affairs envisages a “Greater Eurasia” as a community of nations, drawing current adversaries into a cooperative relationship. A discussion club associated with the President describes it as placing China in “a web of ties, institutions and balances” that would prevent it from exercising hegemony. This may be exaggerating Russia’s current diplomatic strength, but it shows that Russia shares India’s views on the necessary ingredients for a harmonious Indo-Pacific security architecture. Efforts for it need the active participation of the US, Russia and China. The recent acrimony between Russia and the US prevented this. There are some indications of a thaw, at least to the extent of discussions on issues of shared interests. Consultations on Afghanistan and Syria, and some progress in reducing tensions over Ukraine are pointers.
Prime Minister Modi’s initiative to establish an Indian presence in the Russian Far East and to draw Russia into an Indo-Pacific engagement by clarifying India’s perspectives on it may, therefore, prove to be a well-timed geopolitical coup. INAV