Power Play: Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor

Introduction

Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime is a proposed full-fledged sea route of approximately 5,600 nautical miles between Russia’s eastern port city, Vladivostok and Chennai on eastern Indian seaboard. This shipping link would enable to transfer cargo between Chennai and Vladivostok in 24 days in comparison to over 40 days currently taken to transport goods from India to Far East Russia via Europe. Passing through the Sea of Japan, South China Sea and Strait of Malacca, the maritime corridor aims to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia by posing grave security and economic challenges to their Maritime Silk Road. Through this piece, I will briefly discuss the proposed route and then, how it symbolises that India’s diplomatic power is growing by leaps and bounds.

Overview

During the 2019 visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a Memorandum of Intent(MoI) on the ‘Development of Maritime Communications between the Port of Vladivostok and the Port of Chennai.’ India and Russia who have been trusted political partners are trying to rectify their economic relationship that has not kept much pace. Both sides agree on the factors that have contributed to sub-optimal trade: an absent private sector, poor logistics, decline of trade in local currencies, limited oil and gas imports from Russia, and a lack of clarity on avenues to increase Indian exports to Russia.

Though the current leading exports to Russia-pharmaceuticals-electrical machinery, coffee and tea, mechanical appliances, and organic chemicals-do not necessarily signify the necessity for a two-way economic trade via the proposed maritime link yet the lure of importing natural resources, especially in energy, from the Russian Far East and seeking profitable ventures by engaging nations like Japan or Korea to overcome the limited presence of India in the region defines the necessity for bolstering economic cooperation in the Russian Far East.Thus, the revival of this maritime link stems from the necessity of intertwining economic gains and geopolitical dimensions to increase connectivity and establish trade, investment, and commercial links.

China’s Angle

A shipping corridor between India and Russia passing right through the Chinese’s sphere of influence will no doubt cause China’s hostility to increase. Through the proposed VCMC, India is clearly seeking to establish its own trade route, independent of China. This implies an increased naval presence, as well as potential for naval operations in the highly disputed region of the South China Sea. The increased naval presence will help to effectively deal with the vast military asymmetry between India and China. Moreover, with the revival of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue(QUAD) with the US and Japan and a shifting emphasis on Indo-Pacific, the Vladivostok Chennai Maritime Corridor has been viewed to transform and juxtaposed with Indo-Japan Pacific and then into an Indian Ocean corridor to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative of which the Maritime Silk Road is a part of.

Russia gains

Not only India but also Russia has something to gain out of the proposed maritime corridor as Russia attempts to deal with asymmetry in China-Russia relations with Beijing having the stronger hand. Hence, Russia wants to diversify its Far East imports which are currently heavily dominated by China at 45%, consisting mainly of machinery and equipment, and metals. On the other hand, India has only 3% of RFE exports and thus, it is necessary for both India and Russia to exploit the rich potential of the region by importing cooking oil, crude oil, and LNG and establishing a two-way economic trade link. Moreover, Russia aims to regain its key position as an interlocutor for India which has been underscored in recent years by the US. The situation couldn’t have been better as the US plans for possible secondary sanctions on India for the purchase of a multibillion dollar Russian missile system. 

India’s golden opportunity in Southeast Asia

A Chennai-Vladivostok link adds another dimension to Southeast Asian affairs, it signifies that Russia is convinced of India’s vision. India’s interest in Southeast Asia has been gradually increasing as reflected in the move from its Look East policy to Act East as well as its engagement with the concept of the Indo-Pacific. India maintains that the highly contested region is not a club of limited members and that its vision or strategy is not directed towards any particular country. To realise its vision, Russia is the natural ally of India as Russia’s Rosneft, partners to ONGC Videsh, has been exploring the same field, and with President Duterte having invited Russia to do the same off the coast of the Philippines, Russia’s interest in the South China Sea issue cannot be ignored. Putin has vowed to boost military supplies to Vietnam, and there has been speculation that the Brahmo Missile (jointly produced by India and Russia) is likely to be sold to Vietnam. Besides, India is building nuclear power plants with Russia’s collaboration in Kudankulam on the sea coast in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. The opening of a sea route is likely to help in the project.

Conclusion

Vladivostok-Chennai maritime corridor presents an opportunity to improve upon the bilateral linkages between India and Russia at a point in time when not only the world order is undergoing an evolution and a new structure is yet to emerge but also superpowers taking similar positions as seen in the case of China’s BRI. Furthermore, India and Russia have lots to gain from this two-way economic trade link as it satisfies both the domestic economic interests and their geopolitical rationale respectively and thus, it signifies why Foreign Secretary Shringla’s first foreign visit on 17-18th February 2021 was to Russia and why bolstering economic cooperation in Russian Far East by materializing the proposed maritime corridor was of foremost importance respectively.

Pratul Chaturvedi is a second-year student at Ashoka University, who is pursuing History & International Relations.

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