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Why India Shouldn't Worry Too Much About Russia's Posturing In Asia

Pakistan is only incidental in the broader vision that Moscow has for itself.

24/01/2017 12:58 AM IST | Updated 26/01/2017 9:12 AM IST
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

The recent Russia-Pakistan proximity, evident in their joint military drills and bilateral defence deals and agreements, has had many in India brooding that Moscow might engage in a trilateral axis with China and Pakistan.

However, a closer look at Russia's recently approved Foreign Policy Concept reveals that Pakistan is only incidental in the broader vision that Moscow has for itself.

As for China, while the ties may continue, Russia will make every possible effort to move away from being looked at as a dependent power as it partners with Beijing.

Demonstration projects

After years of humiliation and isolation as a result of Western sanctions in the aftermath of Crimea and Ukraine, Russia now wants to bounce back to the centre-stage of world politics. So an image as an independent superpower is absolutely necessary.

For Moscow, Pakistan and Beijing only provide the most needed re-entry points to Afghanistan.

This is evident in the recent ''demonstration projects'' Russia has undertaken. As per its foreign policy document, Russia believes the Western countries no longer have the adequate resources to control the world's economy and politics. This throws an opportunity for Moscow to demonstrate its own strength in managing the world affairs, especially where the US has failed.

Syria offered the best demonstration opportunity to Moscow. Analysts say Russia's Syrian venture and the fall of Aleppo eclipsed America's status as the Middle East's sole superpower.

Russia's next destination for its demonstration project will be Afghanistan—another catastrophic venture by the US.

Russia may want to create balance by getting together opposing regional players with Moscow at the centre—exactly like its modus operandi in the Middle East.

Russia managed to broker Syrian deals bringing together arch rivals Iran and Turkey along with Israel.

Each power views Moscow as the keeper of the necessary balance against their oppositions. For instance, Israel, a former coalition partner against Assad, has been vehemently opposing Iran. But now Tel Aviv believes working with Russia may counter-balance threat from Iran.

In Afghanistan too, Russia has recently driven a tripartite meeting in Moscow involving China, Pakistan and Russia to discuss Afghanistan (ironically excluding Kabul in the summit). Moscow is also stepping up its engagement with the Talibans.

However, the Talibans may not be the most dependable partner for Moscow to make its presence felt in the region. The group is fragmented and struggling with a resource crunch and lack of strong leadership.

Moscow's current partners— Pakistan and China—too bring their own risks. Islamabad's reputation in the South Asian region in general and in Kabul in particular, for one, is at its lowest at present. The fall of the 2016 SAARC summit, owing to the refusal of regional powers to attend it in Pakistan, is a clear indication of how isolated Islamabad is today in the region.

With China, Russia runs into the risks of losing out on the possibility of demonstrating itself as an exclusive superpower capable of negotiating peace if Beijing hogs excessive visibility in the Afghan affair.

So, for Moscow, Pakistan and Beijing only provide the most needed re-entry points to Afghanistan. It will try to create the same kind of balance it did in the Middle East. For that to happen, India—one of Kabul's closest reconstruction partners in the region, and South Asia's most stable power—must be approached.

Maritime ambitions in the IOR

Beyond geopolitical interventions in the region, Moscow seems to have clear maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region, if the "Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2020" is any indicator.

It is intensifying its engagement with the IOR.

With Bangladesh—a country constituting northern border of the world's largest bay, the Bay of Bengal which is a part of the Indian Ocean—Moscow is assisting Dhaka build its nuclear power plant and instituting a visa-free system for diplomats.

Russia is also gradually warming up to Sri Lanka. During a bilateral meet on the sidelines of the 15th Asia Security Summit, or the Shangri-La Dialogue, Colombo and Moscow vowed to deepen military cooperation.

In Pakistan, Karachi Port and access to Gwadar Port are the motivations behind Moscow's Islamabad engagement.

India will be Russia's most valuable partner given its status as a leader in South Asia and the IOR...

But the most important geostrategic power in the IOR region is India. In fact the joint Indo-Russia INDRA (Naval Exercise) on the Indian Ocean is the gateway for Russia to establish economic and maritime power in the region.

Shift away from China-focused Asia policy

Russia's foreign policy document for the first time lays exclusive focus on the ASEAN countries, hinting towards Pacific designs.

Moscow is drawing closer to key Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam, which occupies key shorelines connecting the Strait of Malacca with Northeast Asia. Vietnam has ratified a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Russian oil major Rosneft has begun exploring offshore oil and gas deposits in the country.

Vietnam is also accessible by sea to Russia's Far East (RFE) ports. The RFE is one region which has seen excessive Chinese influence over development and Moscow is now trying to diversify its developmental partners in the region.

ASEAN is also a mean for Russia to shifting its focus away from China towards a diversified range of partners.

Russia's overhyped trade relations with China seem to be reaching a near impasse. Take for instance the $400 billion gas deal—it turns out Russia will yield less money per cubic metre of gas from China than what it earned from Western Europe.

Some reports say Russia's been unable to work with the Big Four Chinese banks, which have been complying with Western sanctions (although Beijing officially condemns the sanctions).

Trade between Russia and China has actually decreased from $88.8 billion in 2013 (pre-Ukraine) to $61.4 billion in 2015. In the first three quarters of 2016, trade turnover has amounted to just over $50 billion.

Russia is, therefore, looking towards countries like Indonesia, where it is joining hands with public oil firms like Pertamina for refinery projects. Russia and the Philippines too are stepping up their relationship following the Philippines relations with the US going southwards.

The biggest overhaul of Russia's Asia policy is its rapprochement with Japan.

In December 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Japan in 11 years, signing agreements for joint economic activities on the disputed South Kurils islands in Russia's Far East.

The Kurils became part of Russia after the Soviet Union's dissolution. But Japan claims four of the islands as its "Northern Territories." However, for Moscow Tokyo looks to be a less risky proposition than China.

In this whole scheme, India will be Russia's most valuable partner given its status as a leader in South Asia and the IOR, and its image as an autonomous strategic power in the Southeast Asian region.

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