The real significance of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla’s Moscow visit on 17 th -18 th February 2021 is to be seen in the backdrop of past development and the agenda for this year’s bilateral summit between the Russian President Putin and the Indian PM Modi.
Prior to his visit, the Indian Ambassador to Russia DB Venkatesh Varma pointed out that the visit was aimed at “setting an active and ambitious agenda for bilateral relations this year, including bilateral summit when Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit India at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. He further added, “India-Russia relations are rock solid and our strategic partnership is diverse. Foreign Secretary’s visit is intended to further deepen our cooperation in all sectors. We will also expand our cooperation including to build on PM Modi’s visit in September 2019.”
Sringla addressed the Russian Diplomatic Academy on the 17 th February in which he described the contents of his meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Igor Margulov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. With Margulov, he discussed and reviewed bilateral relations, India-Russia cooperation in multilateral forums and exchanged views on regional and international issues.
His interaction with Lavrov was more relevant in understanding the Russian view of the Indo-Russian relations in the backdrop of India’s growing Indo-US ties. He informed that Lavrov stated that “India Russia relationship is very close, very special, very privileged, and strategic”. This should allay the apprehension that the growing Indo-US relations were adversely affecting India’s ties with Russia. The December 2020 statement of Lavrov that “India being an object of the Western countries persistent, aggressive and devious policy” to “engage in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies” had strengthened such a perception.
Shringla aptly observed, “It is almost unique in the annals of diplomacy. Notwithstanding radical changes in the global geo-political landscape, our long-standing and time-tested partnership has grown from strength to strength.” Lavrov also accepted the invitation from the Indian Foreign Minister to visit India at a convenient date.
In fact, Russia remains India’s most trusted friend. Despite the break-up of Soviet Union, our bilateral friendship remained very strong. The divergence of views on certain issues did not impact Indo-Russian deep ties. During the tenure of late Sri Atal Vajpayee, an agreement was made for regular interaction at the senior official levels of the two National Security Councils to share views on regional and international issues in holistic manner. This is besides the contacts at the diplomatic and military levels.
The key drivers of partnership include long-term convergence of interests, sensitivity to each other’s core concerns, mutual respect and trust, enduring defence cooperation and growing people-to-people contacts. While India continued with its decision to import S-400 missiles and other equipment despite the US sanction, Russia quietly turned down the request of China to stop the supply of these items and accelerated the process after Indian Defence Minister visited Moscow.
Crucially, Shringla’s at the Diplomatic Academy also spoke on the India-Russia cooperation in three strategic geographies – Eurasia, Indo-Pacific and the Russian Far East, and the Arctic, while highlighting the need to diversify and expand India-Russia trade basket. He highlighted the steps taken to enhance trade with the commencement of negotiations in August 2020 for the India-EAEU Free Trade Agreement. The priority being attached to the International North-South Corridor was underlined. He also indicated the need for the operationalisation of a “Green Corridor” and a Bilateral Investment Protection Arrangement to encourage bilateral trade and investment, respectively.
He discussed with Lavrov the ways to expand the Vladivostok-Chennai corridor-an important dimension of the development of Russian Far East. PM Modi had announced a credit line of 1 bn dollar in 2019. India is looking for investment in new areas such as coal, timber, LNG, for which there is a huge potential in that region. India is also working on trilateral India-Japan-Russia Cooperation in the Russian Far East. However, a lot has still to be done to tap its economic potential by enhancing imports and exports through this route.
Shringla underlining the importance of the Indo-Pacific region in the current environment stated that India would like to work closely with Russia under ASEAN and East Asia Summit, of which both are members. Clarifying the Indian concept, he added that India perceives it as a free, open, inclusive region, which embraces all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. For India, the Indo-Pacific region is the vast maritime space stretching from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa.
Quoting PM Modi, he pointed out that the India’s vision for Indo-Pacific is based on the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). In 2019, at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok, PM Modi took the idea of SAGAR further and announced the "Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative” to support the building of a rules-based regional architecture resting on 7 pillars: maritime security; maritime ecology; maritime resources; capacity building/resource sharing; disaster risk reduction and management; science, technology and academic cooperation; and trade connectivity/ transport.
The above should take care of Russia’s three concerns-the centrality of ASEAN, multipolarity as the basis, and its geographical jurisdiction that covers the Persian Gulf and Africa, where Russia has made substantial investments.
He rightly observed that Russia is crucial to all three regions, and India and Russia could work together for the security and prosperity of these regions and that a multipolar world and multipolar Asia are not possible without India and Russia. This precisely captures the reality.
Quad is not a mini-NATO type alliance as projected by China. Yes, it is a group of countries that is interested in a system based on international laws and multipolarity to protect the strategic balance.
On the 18 th February the foreign ministers emphasised their commitment to upholding a rules-based international order, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas and peaceful resolution of disputes. This group serves as an engine to actualise the Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative. If it desires to check the Chinese expansionism and aggressiveness, it is the doing of China.
India has conveyed its Indo-Pacific vision with which now all agree.
It is based on the principles of multilateralism, multipolarity, equality and respect for sovereignty of all. It is neither based on predatory economics to exploit the weaker nations nor on ambition of any power to dominate the two Oceans. It opposes conflicts and is based on cooperation of all. There is an overriding consensus among the Indo-Pacific stakeholders for a stable and inclusive security architecture that promotes peace, harmony and economic growth. This concept is increasingly getting approval of several other countries.
The need for Russia’s the Indo-Pacific has been flagged by Shringla skilfully, prominently and convincingly before the Russian policy makers. It is hoped that in the coming bilateral summit this year Russia would consider it keeping in view all the factors. The geographical dimension of the Greater Eurasia covers the strategic space from Portugal to Indonesia. This actually complements the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative.
While Russia’s joining of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative is the strategic opportunity for Russia to regain its importance in the developing international structure, it is also true that without Russia this cannot be effective. The Quad partners would do well by expanding it rather than keeping it an exclusive club and thereby perpetuating a perception of the US-led construct to contain China. The western countries and the ASEAN, which have shown interests should be invited to join the Quad to make it Four Plus at the earliest.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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