Since 2000, India-Russia Summits had attempted various means to tap into the potential of this area of the India-Russia partnership. Due to factors such as lack of connectivity, the need to coordinate investment and trade measures, and a comparative absence of the private sector in implementing policy measures, economic cooperation between India and Russia lagged behind the growth of defence, energy and people-to-people cooperation.
In October 2018, the 19th India-Russia Summit had identified the Russian Far East as a catalyst for boosting the special and privileged strategic partnership between the two countries. The objective of focusing on this region, which comprises of 11 of Russia’s 22 provinces, was to make it a base for developing India-Russia economic cooperation.
Vladivostok, the primary port of the Russian Far East, has a history of providing Russia with a window to the outside world, much like St Petersburg provided Russia with an opening to Europe. It was from the Russian Far East that the Russian Empire extended across the Bering Straits to Alaska, with Russian traders of the Russian-American Company (RAC) moving as far south as California. In 1867, due to the adverse economic impact of the Crimean War, Russia sold Alaska for $7 million to an expanding United States. Russian settlements in California gradually dwindled. Today, only Fort Ross (a shorter name for Rossiya) in the Sonoma County of California remains as a witness to this spread of Russia to North America through peaceful, economic interaction.
The decision to host the landmark 20th India-Russia Summit at Vladivostok served to bring the focus on the Russian Far East at the highest policy making level. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi was invited by President Putin to be the Chief Guest at the Eastern Economic Forum to be held at Vladivostok at the same time as the Summit. In April 2019, before the results of the Indian general elections were known, Russia awarded its highest civilian honour, the Order of St Andrew, on Prime Minister Modi.
The Summit was held on 4-5 September 2019. Vladivostok and its surrounding region became the focus of an ambitious joint initiative to energize “strong, multifaceted trade and economic cooperation as the foundation for further expanding the range of India-Russia relations”.
In an assessment of the way forward for revitalizing India-Russia relations published in The Pioneer on 20 May 2018, this writer had advocated a five-pronged approach. These were more frequent informal interactions between the leaders of India and Russia; using the agreement between India and Russia signed at the 2000 Summit for cooperation between states of India and provinces of Russia with a focus on the Russian Far East; integrating an economic dimension into defence and science/technology cooperation; increasing the role of the India-Russia energy partnership to the Russian Far East; and making youth the stakeholders in the future of the India-Russia partnership.
Of these five ideas, four have been implemented with the outcome of the Vladivostok Summit. Underlying this outcome is the obvious level of “trust” between the leaders and people of India and Russia, which is committed to securing strategic autonomy for both countries at a time of major disruptions in international relations. India and Russia declared at Vladivostok that in the process of “successfully coping with the turbulent realities of the contemporary world” they have “never been and will not be susceptible to outside influence”.
Informal Summit Discussions
President Putin accompanied Prime Minister Modi on a tour of the Zvezda ship-building complex near Vladivostok, which enabled the two leaders to spend two hours together in the informal discussions. This continued a practice initiated with their meeting in Sochi in May 2018. In a major affirmation upholding the rule of international law, in which the United Nations legal architecture plays a central role, India and Russia called for “strengthening” multilateralism and underlined the “primacy of international law”. Russia reiterated its support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, whose decisions are binding on all member-states of the United Nations.
The opportunities for the two leaders to meet informally in addition to their annual Summit meetings was welcomed. Such informal contacts on the margins of meetings like the G-20 held recently in Japan have enabled wide-ranging exchanges of views on major bilateral and international issues, including the responses of both countries to unilateral sanctions being applied on Russia and Iran. Prime Minister Modi said at the Joint Press Conference with President Putin that he looked forward to more such interactions during 2020, when Russia would chair the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS.
Civilizational Values and Cultural Cooperation
In the joint press conference by the two leaders, President Putin highlighted the deep mutual interest of India and Russia in “each other’s culture, history and moral values.” His references to the contribution to developing greater understanding and awareness of each other by intellectuals and travelers demonstrated the civilizational matrix that imbues the India-Russia partnership. Such individuals include the first Russian traveler to visit India and record his impressions, Afanasiy Nikitin, who landed in India in 1466, more than thirty years before Vasco da Gama is supposed to have “discovered” India for the West, and Nicholas Roerich, who lived and painted in India. On the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, Russia issued a special postage stamp to mark the occasion.
Prime Minister Modi referred to the fact that he was the first Prime Minister of India to travel to the Russian Far East due to the invitation extended by President Putin. In his address to the Eastern Economic Forum, Prime Minister Modi referred to the keep knowledge of Indian culture of Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, with whom Mahatma Gandhi had frequent interaction of views. He called for strengthening such bonds as “a shared inspiration of India and Russia” to become greater partners in each other’s progress.
The Summit welcomed the expansion of cultural cooperation between India and Russia to implement this objective. Russia will be the partner country for the 50th International Film Festival to be held in Goa on 20-28 November 2019. There will be greater geographical spread of cultural events being organized in both countries, with an emphasis placed on youth exchanges. Cooperation in higher education was identified as a priority, with proposals to conclude bilateral agreements on recognition of educational degrees of each other’s institutions.
The development of tourist flows between India and Russia was identified as one way of increasing greater people-to-people contacts and awareness. The focus on the Russian Far East provides an opportunity to use existing air and rail links to promote a “Buddhist Trail” in Russia’s Siberian region, including destinations like Buryatia and Zabaikalski Krai, which are accessible from Irkutsk (the home of the Sukhoi-30MKi aircraft factory). Another dimension for tourist flows into Russia following the Vladivostok Summit would be eco-tourism around Lake Baikal, the largest fresh-water lake in the world, located near Irkutsk.
Energizing Economic Cooperation
The growth of greater public awareness of each other will play a major role in expanding economic relations between India and Russia, which was the major theme of the 20th Summit. Focusing on the Russian Far East, a major initiative announced by Prime Minister Modi at the Eastern Economic Forum was a line of credit worth $1 billion by India to the region. The Prime Minister said:
“This is the first time that we are giving a line of credit to a particular region of a country. My Government’s Act East Policy has actively engaged with East Asia. Today’s announcement will prove to be the take-off point of the Act Far East policy and it is my firm belief that this step adds a new dimension to our economic diplomacy. We will be active participants in the development of the regions of our friendly countries according to their priorities.”
In order to channelize India’s focused participation in the development of Russia’s Far East, the Summit took four specific policy decisions. These are:
Negotiating a bilateral inter-governmental agreement on the promotion and protection of mutual investments.
Discussions followed by negotiations on how to remove or lower non-tariff barriers to trade, including within the framework of a broad Trade Agreement between India and the emerging Eurasian Economic Union.
Coordinating activities of investment agencies in India and Russia.
Making the newly established India-Russia Strategic Economic Dialogue, which is led by NITI Aayog on the Indian side, for “cohesive and mutually beneficial cooperation in core sectors”.
Sectors identified for developing joint partnership between Indian and Russian companies through the 50 business contracts concluded during the Prime Minister’s visit to Vladivostok included pharmaceuticals, agriculture, civil aviation, railways, ship building, space, education and tourism, in addition to the on-going collaboration in the areas of diamond processing and coal mining. It is envisaged in the Summit declaration that “temporary placement of skilled manpower from India” in Russia’s Far East can result from this cooperation.
The states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Goa have been identified to interact with the 11 provinces of Russia’s Far East to provide depth to this process, using the India-Russia Agreement on cooperation between India’s states and Russia’s provinces. The Chief Ministers of the four Indian states accompanied Commerce Minister on a pre-Summit visit to Vladivostok in early August 2019 to get acquainted with their counterparts.
The Vladivostok Summit placed emphasis on the economic dimension of the long-standing science and technology cooperation between India and Russia. It agreed to integrate innovation in high technology products in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnologies into this framework. A special area for developing India-Russia cooperation is in applications of digital technology, and the accompanying issues of cyber security.
Long-Term Energy Cooperation
In civil nuclear energy cooperation, Russia continues to be the only major power partnering with India on the ground through the Kudankulam project in Tamil Nadu in commercializing the use of nuclear energy to meet India’s energy security needs. Prime Minister Modi emphasized the significance of “localization of nuclear power plants” with reference to the new reactors being constructed by Russia at Kudankulam. Such an approach will strengthen India’s manufacturing and skilled manpower sectors. President Putin indicated that “at least 12 Russian-designed nuclear power plants will be built within the next 20 years” in India. This would provide the basis for an increase in nuclear trade and technological cooperation between Russia and India, including in “joint manufacturing of equipment and fuel.” Russia reiterated its strong support for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
India and Russia have almost matching investments in each other’s oil and gas sectors. India’s entry into Russian’s Siberian oil and gas fields, especially the Vankor cluster, and her stake in the offshore Sakhalin-1 oilfield in Russia’s Far East, takes her cumulative investments to over $15 billion since 2001. Russia’s Rosneft-led consortium acquired India’s Essar Oil (since renamed as Nayara Energy) for $13 billion in 2017. The Summit welcomed a five-year framework for cooperation in Hydrocarbons between India and Russia, as well as mutually beneficial long-term partnerships between India’s Consortium of Oil and Gas Public Sector Undertakings and Russia’s Rosneft, and between Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and Russia’s giant Gazprom, which would see long-term supply of Russian Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to India. This cooperation will have a significant impact on India’s economy in terms of predictable pricing and supplies of energy to India.
Joint Manufacturing in Defence Cooperation
The most significant outcome of the Vladivostok Summit was the agreement for manufacturing spares of Russian/Soviet-origin equipment in India. This agreement represents a sustainable solution to a long-standing problem, which has sometimes curtailed the effective deployment of India’s vast inventory of Russian/Soviet origin military equipment in her armed forces, apart from being used as an issue in the cut-and-thrust of lobbying campaigns by major global arms equipment suppliers eager to enter the Indian market. Under the agreement, Russia will participate through investments in India’s Make in India programme in the defence manufacturing sector. This will result in joint development and production of military equipment, components, and spare parts, as well as after-sales service activities.
In a broader geo-political framework, the Vladivostok Summit expands the scope of the India-Russia strategic partnership in the Pacific, Arctic and Indian Oceans. The announcement of a new maritime route linking Vladivostok with Chennai will make India and Russia stakeholders in issues concerning freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The participation of India in the Northern Sea Route will integrate the Arctic region into the India-Russia partnership. A focus on deep sea fishing and deep-sea mining as part of India’s expanding engagement with the Russian Far East will provide opportunities for developing the Blue Economy of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Prime Minister Modi referred in his address to the Eastern Economic Forum to “an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”, providing a framework for the integration of maritime cooperation between India and Russia. The Summit declaration has proposed consultations on “integration and development initiatives in the greater Eurasian space and in the regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans”. The new thrust given by the Vladivostok Summit can catalyze the emergence of India as a maritime power in the Indo-Pacific strategic and economic framework.
(The Writer is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations. The views expressed are personal)