In its recently published commentary, “The ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’ between Russia and India”, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) describes and analyses the historical and current context of Indo-Russian relations. Invited to Russia to be the chief guest at the fifth Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country on 4-5 September. Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin also held the 20th India-Russia annual bilateral summit during the visit, and as many as 25 pacts were signed between the two countries in fields ranging from connectivity, oil and gas, nuclear energy, deep-sea exploration, space, defense, trade, investments, industrial cooperation, education and culture.
The warmth that was put on public display by Modi and Putin, both similarly viewed as strong and decisive leaders in their respective countries, and the public articulation of the long and close personal ties and the similar worldviews that they shared, added to the ambience of their interactions during the visit. Serious messages were conveyed by both sides, with their implications not only limited to the bilateral relationship but equally to other geostrategic issues and aspects.
EFSAS explains how both India and Russia were grappling to fine-tune their own roles in a changing world, and they eventually had to contend with the critical question of where their historically vibrant and strong bilateral relationship stood amidst the turbulence. An important milestone in this context was an informal summit that Modi and Putin had in May 2018, just four months before the annual bilateral summit that was scheduled to be held in October 2018 anyway. This informal summit redirected focus back to the need to reorient, modernize and galvanize the bilateral relationship, and subsequent developments have borne out the fact that the relationship is back on track. There have been close to 50 ministerial level visits between the two countries since then, and there appears to be a clear desire to expand the relationship into new areas of mutually beneficial engagement beyond the traditional military-technical cooperation.
Russia’s invitation to Modi to be the chief guest at the EEF underscored the role that Russia envisages for India in this region. From India’s perspective, the natural resources-rich Far East Region has the potential to strengthen the India-Russia economic partnership in areas like energy, tourism, agriculture, diamond mining and alternative energy. The region is rich in oil, natural gas, timber, gold and diamond, among other resources and India requires all of them. One of the important complementarities for India and Russia is the sparse population in the Far East Region and the ready availability of skilled manpower in India. A lack of manpower is one of the main problems faced by the Far East and Indian professionals like doctors, engineers and teachers, as well as those involved in sectors like agriculture and construction, can help in the region’s development.
In a telling reversal of roles, Modi on 5 September announced a $1 billion line of credit for the development of the Far East Region. Till a few decades ago, India was a frequent recipient of similar Soviet assistance. EFSAS further describes how in addition to “economic diplomacy”, there is a subtle but weighty strategic aspect to Russia’s encouragement of Indian investments in the Far East Region. The region has thus far experienced Chinese domination, much to the chagrin of the local population as well as the government in Moscow. China has also been aggressively pushing its military presence in its own areas bordering the Far East Region. There is also a lurking fear in Russia of an eventual Chinese take-over of the Far East Region.
Finally, EFSAS concludes that India, as a trusted long-time friend of Russia that also has a rapidly growing economy, fits in well into the Russian government’s projection of a viable alternative/counterweight to China in the Far East. And it suits India eminently to oblige.