Amidst rapidly changing interests of regional and extra regional countries in the Indo-Pacific region, emerging Russian stakes and role in the region, primarily pegged on the energy and defence sectors, promise to bring Russia full-circle from its Cold War days in the Asia-Pacific region.
The terms ‘evolution’ and ‘Indo-Pacific’ have often been juxtaposed in recent literature of international relations, referring to the non-static nature of discourse on the region. The Indo-Pacific as strategic conception as well as a geographic construct has largely evolved in the last decade, riding on the need to create a shared vision for attaining common regional goals. As a critical part of this evolution, debates on the nature, expanse and strategy with respect to the Indo-Pacific is wide ranging and intense. In many senses, the Indo-Pacific represents a shift from Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. The variability associated with the conceptual understanding of the term and implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy itself have widened this debate, even as most countries, led by the US, are still finalizing their positions vis-à-vis this new strategic geography. While the Indo-Pacific is essentially seen by most as a construct to facilitate the growing synergy and connectivity between the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) and the Pacific theatre, some view the Indo-Pacific as a regional vision to sustain globally accepted norms. Others still, perceive the Indo-Pacific as a strategy, most outstandingly as a countervailing geopolitical and geostrategic construct to China’s mega infrastructure and connectivity project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
These debates have nudged countries of the region to frame their respective policies in the region. To be sure, quite a few countries have come out with their respective official Indo-Pacific strategies in the region. The United States Department of Defense published its ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy Report’ in June 2019 outlining its official position, while underscoring its focus on three Ps: ‘Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region’. Japan, which has led the discourse on Indo-Pacific ever since Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe proposed the idea in 2007, also consolidated its strategy in the form of a document, propagating its idea of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. Among other middle powers, the Australian government and the French government have also put together a policy document highlighting their official position on the Indo-Pacific and strategy in the region. Recently, ASEAN also came out with its Indo-Pacific outlook. For smaller countries, due to the strategic nature of the geography and dependence on larger countries, the Indo-Pacific is attractive and yet comes with compulsions. The prevailing uncertainty has not allowed the smaller countries to conclusively adopt their unwavering positions and assured alliances in this region. Although, a few other countries with rising stakes in the region, including India, Russia and the United Kingdom (UK), have deliberately desisted from putting out a direct policy document on their Indo-Pacific strategy or vision despite high stakes in the region, they are still assessing the conceptual and strategic evolution of the Indo-Pacific. In the case of India, Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018 is a rare primary source material and statement for India's policy thinking apropos the Indo-Pacific at the highest level.
Russia in the Indo-Pacific
Russia is refocusing on the ‘turn to the East’ as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Rapidly increasing Russian stakes in the Indo-Pacific has the potential to significantly transform the Indo-Pacific. Moscow’s improving relations with Japan, cordial relations with Vietnam, balanced ties with China and consistent relations with India, which has now found a new impetus with New Delhi’s investments in the Russian Far East Region, have the potential to enhance its skin in the Indo-Pacific game dramatically. Already, Russia is steadfastly committed to reviving its old ties in the Pacific theatre and forming new ones. Russia’s ties with Vietnam were strong until 2002.  The “Three Nos” in Vietnam's defense policy - that is, no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil ushered a lull in strategic ties with Russia in comparison to the last century. At the beginning of this century, Russia reduced its military presence Pacific-Atlantic presence including from the Lourdes signal intelligence station in Cuba and Vietnam’s Cam Rahn Bay naval base. The larger Indo-Pacific and Vietnam in particular however have been at the centre of Russia’s growing Indo-Pacific interests, especially since 2013. Vietnam’s own diversification of ties by opening its Cam Rahn Bay to all countries is likely to help the strategic accommodation of Russia in the Indo-Pacific.
As Moscow’s relations with the four aforementioned countries; China, India, Japan and Vietnam themselves are not static, it suits Russia to maintain an officially unstated and nuanced position which helps it assess the Indo-Pacific before embarking on a declaratory national position. Russia has balanced its position on the Indo-Pacific between criticism of the American notion of the strategy as “artificially imposed” and its own conception of the region which positions Russia in favour of the Indo-Pacific strategy’s stated goals of free trade and improved regional connectivity. In the words of the Russian PM Medvedev, the Indo-Pacific strategy “is about creating an entire economic and cultural space where people can freely communicate, trade, travel and discover new opportunities for themselves.” Russia’s position on the Indo-Pacific therefore appears deliberately nuanced and is most likely to be shaped by its evolving relations with three countries - China, Japan and India, as also by its relations with ASEAN nations.
In the Indo-Pacific, Russia’s relations primarily involve growing economic relations with China, Japan, India, Vietnam and the ASEAN bloc as a whole. Its evolving ties with China are best described by Dmitri Trenin’s words, “never being against each other, but not necessarily always with each other”. It serves both Russia and China to work together against the West and avoid friction between themselves. With Japan, Russia has decided to accelerate talks to solve the Kuril Island dispute (which had its genesis at the end of the Second World War) and has the potential to increase trade and investment links between Japan and Russia. In so far as India is concerned, during the PM’s visit to Russia’s Far East for the Fifth Eastern Economic Forum and the 20th India-Russia Annual Summit, India offered US $1 billion as Line of Credit for development and growth in Russia’s Far East. This investment, primarily aimed at development of export-potential of Russia’s Far East, is likely to increase trade, investment and connectivity stakes in the Indo-Pacific for both countries. The investment will also facilitate a Vladivostok-Chennai connecting route which will pass through strategic areas of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, including the Malacca Strait, the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea which covers the strategic Vietnamese coast. The joint statement between India and Russia in the aftermath of the Vladivostok meeting, makes it clearer that the two countries perceive the “regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as part of a common space. While Russia continues to use the term Asia-Pacific, the India-Russia joint statement recognised that Greater Eurasia and the “regions of the Indian and Pacific Ocean” forms part of a common space which is “Indo-Asia-Pacific” (a term used to holistically represent the transition from Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific) where bilateral interests are increasingly converging. These relations are likely to fuel the growth of Russia’s economic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific: “extensive exploration and extraction of key natural resources; establishing a complete supply chain, particularly for the export of energy resources; turning the Russian Far East into a regional hub of national aerospace and shipbuilding industry; supporting export of advanced military technology to regional clients; creating a Europe-Pacific strategic transit corridor; and attracting foreign investment”.
With its increasing ties with the regional countries, as its primary regional agenda, Russia intends to exploit the energy potential of the Indo-Pacific. Its proposed opening of the 2,600 mile ‘Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean’ energy pipeline would help Moscow meet their expected supply target of exporting more than 100 billion cubic meters of gas by the mid-2030s to China. Besides, India and Russia agreed in 2016 to explore construction of a pipeline costing close to USD 25 billion to supply natural gas from Siberia to India. PM Modi’s September 2019 visit to Vladivostok also resulted in agreements between the two sides on joint energy exploration in each other’s territory.
Notwithstanding Russian stated skepticism, Russia’s geostrategic calculus for the Indo-Pacific should not be underestimated. Its increasing trade links with the countries of ASEAN has brought its expanse up to Southeast Asia. In the areas of maritime cooperation, possible selling of floating nuclear power plant technology, and free trade agreements, Russia has advanced relationship with ASEAN countries, including Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand. As such, Russia’s position on the Indo-Pacific, while being sceptical of the terminology of the Indo-Pacific itself, will be to continue building on its existing economic and strategic stakes in the region. Russia’s relationship with China and Japan, and the fact that the Indo-Pacific concept is seen to be led by the US, will prevent an all-out embrace of the term and the essence by Moscow. However, factoring the inescapable importance of the Indo-Pacific region in current geopolitics is unlikely to be ignored by any country, including Russia. It is difficult to imagine an Indo-Pacific construct where Russia will not be an important actor.
*Dr Vivek Mishra, Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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