Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a plenary session at the fifth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2019. Photo: Sputnik / Alexei Danichev

On July 20, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla stated that India and Japan are willing to enhance cooperation through investments and joint projects in third countries, including the strategically located and resource-rich Russian Far East.

Moreover, he outlined the deepening multidimensional partnership between India and Japan has the “potential to shape a multipolar world that is more peaceful, secure and sustainable.”

India and Japan are major Asian powers that seek to maintain the stability, peace, and order of the continent. Aside from their political clout and military capabilities, both countries possess significantly large economies. Russia can benefit from this by bolstering its partnership with India and Japan as it seeks to improve the political-economic environment in its Far East region.

The Far East in Russia’s strategic calculus

The Russian Far East constitutes more than one-third of the country’s total territory. It is also abundant in natural resources and is critical to preserving highly important Asian trade routes. However, despite its geopolitical and economic importance, the Russian Far East continues to face underdevelopment, which has been a point of concern for Moscow.

The region’s history of socio-political issues coupled with economic constraints serves as a challenge for Moscow’s interests to maintain the stability, unity, and peace throughout the country. Accordingly, these factors have prompted the Russian government to spearhead policies to prioritize the development of the Far East in 2006.

A major milestone toward the growth profile of the Far East was reached a few years later through the government’s “Pivot to the East” strategy, which encompassed a series of initiatives for the development of the region. The Far East was to act as a link between businesses in Russian mega-regions and companies in East and South Asia.

Furthermore, the strategy also aimed to increase investments in the Far East to enhance economic activity and growth. However, the situation in Ukraine that erupted in 2014 led to attempts from the United States and the European Union to isolate and impose sanctions of Russia. These circumstances added more impetus to Russia’s pivot to Asia. Furthermore, the role of the Far East became more emphasized.

However, as Russia pivots to Asia, it is faced with a worrying new reality in its Far East – China’s economic and military rise and its proximity to the region. The population of the Far East is only a little over 6 million. Moreover, the population in the region is on a downward trend due to low birth rates and migration to other parts of Russia.

This phenomenon is being exacerbated by the influx of Chinese migrants in the area. Furthermore, the large empty spaces in the Far East have been increasingly utilized by Chinese businesses. This reality may greatly affect Russia’s security perception in the long term.

Despite being strategic partners, the level of mistrust due to a complex history and China’s increasing footprints in traditional Russian spheres of influence have warranted evaluation. Accordingly, Moscow has further pushed for the diversification of partners in its Far East as it worries about a demographic and economic imbalance in the region.

India and Japan in the Russian Far East

India and Japan have continuously collaborated on a variety of infrastructural, investment, and security projects throughout Asia and beyond. Both major democracies have highlighted the need for transparency, peace, and development in every joint project that they have undertaken.

In recent years, the Russian Far East has become a significant area for cooperation between the two countries.

While Japan began investing in the region much earlier, India had a marginal role. However, at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a special guest at an event that aimed to bolster economic activity in the Russian Far East. Furthermore, Modi emphasized India’s interest in taking part in the development of the region and even announced a credit line worth US$1 billion.

India’s more active involvement in the Russian Far East will allow it to gain access to resources and enhance the movement of Indian labor. Accordingly, this was cemented through several memoranda of understanding that highlighted a new dimension to the India-Russia strategic partnership.

What was once a relationship that primarily focused on military cooperation is now evolving toward economic development. Shringla’s recent remarks thus serve as a renewal of this burgeoning dimension.

As for Japan, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has vowed to continue his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s efforts to engage effectively with Russia. The Far East continues to position itself as an important area for convergence between Japan and Russia.

These areas of intersection among the three countries can serve as a significant foundation for the much-anticipated trilateral arrangement.

The way forward

The participation of both India and Japan in Russia’s Far East would seem to benefit all three countries. An arrangement among the three countries would allow India and Japan to balance China’s strategic influence and provide Russia much-needed breathing room and space for diversification.

Furthermore, this three-way partnership would allow Russia to integrate itself further in Asia without solely relying on China’s political and economic clout.

However, the internal situation in the Russian Far East may prove to be a challenge to both India and Japan as they seek to enhance their participation. Moreover, Western-led sanctions add a layer of complexity that may scare off foreign investors.

But if all three countries work together effectively to produce a conducive atmosphere for development, the benefits may eventually outweigh the risks in the long term.

Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is a resident fellow at the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC). He is a geopolitical analyst and author who has written extensively on Indo-Pacific security and Indian foreign policy.