Exploring a new geopolitical partnership — the India-Russia-Japan triangle
India is looking to make significant moves in an oft-neglected patch of the Indo-Pacific. It is exploring the possibility of a special trilateral meeting between India, Russia and Japan during the upcoming sixth edition of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Russia.
Engagement with Russia in its pacific territory will help India look beyond the Quad grouping and also pursue its goals of economic partnerships in Russia’s Far East.
It helps that India has strong ties with both Russia and Japan. Delhi shares common security and economic interests with Tokyo, and the two Quad members face a common adversary in China.
India has a relationship with Russia that is often described as “all weather” and “time tested” that is largely underpinned today by defence ties. However, India and Russia have not always been on the same page in recent times. The Quad may have emerged as a fulcrum of security for India, Japan and Australia, but for Russia, it remains a United States (US)-led bulwark against China, which, at the moment, is a concept contrary to its own strategic interests.
Moscow is only pragmatically aligned with Beijing, because China’s strategic and economic weight helps Russia counterbalance the US. If Russia’s strength grows once again, it would be able to exercise greater strategic independence, and we may even see cracks in the Russia-China relationship. However, until some such development occurs, the challenge for India will be to engage Russia constructively on Indo-Pacific issues, despite their different approaches to China and the US.
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Beyond defence ties and the Indo-Pacific, India and Japan can also work with Russia on the Arctic, where it enjoys an unmatched position thanks to geography, and infrastructure both existing and under development in the Russian Far East and along the Northern Sea Route(NSR).
Japan sees great hope in the transshipment prospects for sending goods to Europe via the use of the Northern Sea Route and the Trans Siberian Railway. The NSR-Trans Siberian transshipment route effectively halves the time it takes, from 57-62 days via the Suez Canal route down to 20-27 days over NSR, and the associated costs may also be reduced by around 50% compared to the Suez route.
India, for its part, has made substantial investments in the Russian Far East’s economy and is now looking to co-ordinate these efforts with Japan. An effort to establish a trilateral track between itself, Japan and Russia is also ongoing. To this end, India has already hosted track II dialogues between representatives of the three countries, though these have been narrowly focused on a few trade issues and lack broader strategic vision.
A key factor in the India-Russia-Japan trilateral is that India enjoys better relations with both countries than they enjoy with each other. Russia and Japan not only have very different relations with the US and China, they also have a long-standing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands that dates back to the end of the Second World War. Four of the southern Kuril Islands namely — Iturup, Kunashir, Habomai and Shikotan — came to Russia as a result of its victory over Imperial Japan. Today, Russia sees control over these islands as strategically important as guarantors to its ability to access the open waters of the Pacific.
There have been efforts to resolve this dispute. Most recently, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe led a considerable diplomatic effort with his “eight point economic co-operation plan” with an expectation to secure both a peace treaty and perhaps the return of the Japanese claimed islands. However, nothing tangible came of these initiatives.
To make matters worse, Japanese private enterprises are generally wary of investing in the Russian economy due to concerns about being subject to Russian national law instead of international law, and anticipating losses arising from being caught in the crossfire of Western sanctions against Russia.
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Russia also adopted new laws in the year 2020 which criminalise making or advocating for territorial concessions. This is a reflection of widespread public opinion that is averse to alienating any Russian territory, be it any part of Russia, including those with various degrees of international controversy around them (Crimea, Kurils or Kaliningrad).
Russia recently revealed that a new regime of tax exemptions and a customs free zone will be setup on the Kuril Islands so that the region can see massive development over the next five years. Russia has invited all countries including Japan to take advantage of this opportunity, but the reaction from the Japanese government, press and diplomats has been no less than a tantrum. Clearly, a soothing voice of a mediating partner both sides see as unbiased and as their confidant is needed.
This is where India can step in. Helping Russia and Japan improve their relations can serve many Indian goals. Besides allowing greater economic opportunities for all three countries, better Russia-Japan ties could also give both countries greater leverage in their relations with China. Any Indian role in helping Russia and Japan resolve or manage their differences will also greatly enhance its prestige.
Such diplomatic initiatives are not unprecedented for India. In the years after independence, it offered its good offices to help address several global issues. Most prominently, during the Korean conflict, India played a major role in the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission.
India can only act as a mediator between Russia and Japan if the two countries want it. However, if they do, India must turn its attention to the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute and help the countries come closer to solutions, even if these are temporary.
The potential trilateral meeting can be India’s opening gambit. A little diplomacy in the northeastern reaches of the Indo-Pacific could go a long way.
Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.
The views expressed are personal