A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the then Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe at Vladivostok, in Russia on September 4, 2019 (Image courtesy: PIB)
The much-anticipated trilateral cooperation initiative between India, Russia and Japan seems to be finally taking shape as New Delhi increases partnership with its longstanding and time-tested partners in the Russian Far East.
Addressing the first India-Japan Forum hosted by the Ministry of External Affairs and Ananta Aspen Centre Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that both India and Japan are continuing to enhance their ability to work with other partners in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
"We are looking at deepening our cooperation in third countries, moving beyond India's immediate neighbourhood to the Russian Far East and the Pacific Island States. Japan's participation as the lead partner in the 'connectivity pillar' of the Indo-Pacific Oceans' Initiative launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 is greatly welcome and will provide significant impetus to this initiative," said Shringla.
Highlighting the 'Special Strategic and Global Partnership' between the two countries at the same forum, Japanese Ambassador to India Satoshi Suzuki made it clear that the roles Japan and India need to play in the Indo-Pacific region, which continues to witness unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion, are becoming more and more critical.
"We have jointly promoted collaboration, for example, by developing and upgrading infrastructure in third countries, including Bangladesh. Moreover, as Prime Minister Modi unveiled the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, or IPOI, which has a lot in common with Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, Japan has become one of its lead countries to move this initiative forward," Suzuki pointed out.
Things have certainly come a long way since June 1, 2018, when PM Modi outlined India's vision for the Indo-Pacific region in his speech delivered at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.
While India launched a number of projects under its Act East Policy, which provides the guiding framework to take forward the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership to the next level, it was Prime Minister Modi's visit to Vladivostok in September 2019 which acted as a game-changer as far as focus on the Russian Far East is concerned.
The 20th India-Russia Bilateral Summit and the 5th Eastern Economic Summit, where PM Modi was the guest of honour, paved the way for India's larger cooperation in the fields of not only oil and gas sectors but also road transport, defence, trade and investments in the region.
Insisting that Russian President Vladimir Putin's affinity to the Far East has brought unprecedented opportunities not only for the region but also for its partners like India, Modi had listed significant Indian investments with the Sakhalin's oil fields being a classic example.
"India will provide a $ 1 billion line of credit to further contribute to the development of the Far East. This is the first time that we are giving a line of credit to a particular region of a country. My Government's Act East Policy has actively engaged with the East Asia," PM Modi had announced while declaring that India will be an active participant in the development of the regions of its friendly countries according to their priorities.
Modi had emphasized that together, India and Russia will cross the distances of space and also bring out prosperity from the depths of the sea.
A fuller picture of what PM Modi really envisaged is now emerging.
The first Track-II dialogue on 'India-Japan-Russia Trilateral Cooperation in the Russian Far East' organised earlier this year saw participants from the three sides exploring areas of shared interest to promote the framework for mutual benefit.
Held virtually on January 20, it was hosted by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi with the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia (ERINA) from Japan and the Far East Investment and Export Agency (FEIEA) from Russia being the co-partners.
During the first dialogue, it was suggested to explore the potential for trilateral partnership in the development of the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route through the promotion of investment and trade linkages.
The participants also identified energy, coal mining, transport and logistics, maritime connectivity, diamond processing, agro-industry, forestry, pharma, healthcare, high technology, scientific research, capacity building, tourism, humanitarian fields as potential areas of trilateral cooperation.
That the interconnected nature of regional development alongside the Russian Far East is going to play a major role in the times to come has been spotlighted by India quite frequently now.
"For a nation like India that now sees much of its trade eastwards, we must look beyond anachronisms. Both our interests and our reach today extend well into the Pacific. Our major partners are located there, and indeed, cooperation with the Russian Far East is one notable example." said External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in his speech on 'India-Russia ties in a changing world' at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), earlier this month.
With the focus shifting decisively towards the Indo-Pacific region in the changing geopolitical landscape, the Russian Far East has also emerged as the growing convergence of interest between India-Russia and India-Japan bilateral talks.
Jaishankar and his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have "noted the new opportunities" in the Russian Far East during the meetings they have held this year, in New Delhi and Moscow.
The International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor have been discussed as extensively as the rapidly expanding energy cooperation between the two countries.
"Moving beyond the established areas, we have been discussing greater inter regional cooperation particularly with the Russian Far East. We spoke about how we could take that forward, there are some agreements which have to be signed, I think we have made some progress there," Jaishankar had said after meeting with Lavrov on July 9.
With both Modi and Putin deciding to establish a new 2+2 dialogue at Minister level comprising Foreign and Defence Ministers from both countries and the Russian President slated to visit India later this year for the bilateral summit, the Far East-Act East partnership in the Arctic and beyond is only expected to get stronger.