_ Raj Kumar Sharma, Dr. Sc., Academic Associate, Faculty of Political Science, IGNOU. New Delhi, 6 October 2018.
Amidst tensions with the West and an asymmetric relationship with China, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in India for 19th Annual Summit meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 5, 2018. The US and China were the elephants in the room when the two leaders discussed bilateral relations; Moscow is worried about India’s growing closeness to Washington while New Delhi does not appreciate Russia’s proximity to China. This may signal a ‘drift’ in India-Russia relations vis-a-vis China but Russia does see China as a long-term rival which needs to be balanced and the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) floated by Putin is an opportunity for India in this context.
GEP signifies Russia’s disillusion with its efforts to integrate with Europe prompting Moscow’s pivot to East. The idea of GEP is still being refined by Russian experts and largely is an attempt by Russia to safeguard its economic and security interests in Eurasia. One of the main aims of GEP is to balance China in the region so that it does not become a hegemon. Russia has also extended the scope of GEP to include countries like India, Iran, South Korea, Japan and Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) to dilute Beijing’s power. This is precisely the reason why Russia supported expansion of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to include India and Pakistan while Iran is a potential member in future. Russia and China are finding ways to cooperate between their respective initiatives, Eurasian Economic Union and Belt and Road Initiative but problems are far too many. The two initiatives by their aims and objectives are contradictory in nature; EEU is a customs union which would impose tariffs on imports from non-EEU members while China wants to increase its exports under BRI.
Russia and China seem to have a closer relationship at the global level but it has its share of problems in Eurasia. Both the countries seem to have different understanding of Eurasia. In its current manifestation, Eurasia means mainly the post-Soviet space for Russia with Moscow as its core. China, on the other hand, aspires to emerge as Eurasian core where Europe and Asia are tied to Chinese economy through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Driven by the ‘Middle Kingdom’ mentality, China’s understanding of Eurasia could be a potential challenge to Russia in the post-Soviet space. Since the Chinese economic resources could influence the region more than the Russians, there is ample scope for Russia to cooperate with India at regional level in order to avoid too much dependence on China. This will also strengthen India-Russia economic ties which have been weak ever since Soviet Union disintegrated. The two countries could cooperate in areas like Central Asia, South East Asia, Afghanistan, Russia’s Far East and Arctic to further boost their relationship under the GEP initiative.
A weakened Russia is not in India’s favour and New Delhi must help its strategic partner’s initiative to find feet in the region at a time when India has been a vocal critic of China’s BRI. Russia, like India, has concerns about BRI which will emerge as the main artery connecting Europe and Asia reducing competitiveness of Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway and Northern Sea Route. Post-India’s membership in SCO, there is ample room for India and Russia to work together in Eurasia to ensure balance of power is restored. India should encourage its private sector companies to work with Russian companies in Central Asia in untapped sectors like IT and renewable energy. Since Russia has close relations with Iran, India should explore the possibility of Russian involvement in Chabahar port which will provide Afghanistan and Central Asia access to sea. India’s efficient labour can help in development of Russia’s Far East which lacks manpower. India’s International North South Transport Corridor can help in connecting Far East to Indian Ocean. INSTC passes through Aktau on Kazakh side of the Caspian Sea. One branch of the Trans-Siberian railway from Omsk oblast could be connected to Aktau in Kazakhstan. Such a possibility is not difficult as Aktau is already well connected by road and rail network. Hence, INSTC would give Far East an outlet in southern direction. India and Russia should also try to align their respective Look East policies which focus on South East Asia and Vietnam and Japan are two key countries in this regard. Indian companies investing in Arctic oilfields could supply oil to Japan through the Northern Sea Route while defense and energy cooperation could be the focus between India, Russia and Vietnam.
GEP may seek to cooperate with China but it also tries to make sure Beijing does not become the ferocious ‘dragon’ in Eurasia and India should take advantage of the initiative. In times where Trump is interested in deglobalization while China is promoting Globalization 2.0 with Chinese characteristics, it makes sense for India and Russia to increase trade in order to hedge against disruptive forces.