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Modi, Abe have task cut out in Russia: Prying Putin away from China

Apart from better bilateral ties at the expense of China, Modi will probably seek from Putin support for his new Kashmir policy

Thomas Grove | WSJ  |  Moscow 

PM Narendra Modi and PM Shinzo Abe
PM Narendra Modi and PM Shinzo Abe | File photo

Alarmed by Russia’s growing partnership with China, Beijing’s Asian neighbors are increasingly looking for ways to court Moscow away.

That is exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aim to do at the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok this week. Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be notably absent from the event, Russian President Vladimir Putin ’s showcase for investment opportunities in his country’s Far East.

“Both of them are interested in seeing how they can come between Putin and Xi,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “They each have their own agenda, but both share an interest in prying Moscow away from Beijing.”

Russia and China have touted their strengthening relationship; trade has increased and the two plan to sign a new military agreement. But the depth of the relationship is untested, and China’s investments in Russia have fallen far short of the expectations built up when Moscow announced its pivot to the East in 2014, as relations with the West worsened. That has left other regional powers wondering how to exploit potential weaknesses in their relationship.

This year’s forum is the fifth. As Russia has failed to attract big business investments to its generally underdeveloped Far East, the event has become a forum for Russia’s political elite, showcasing top-down government development plans.

Apart from better bilateral ties at the expense of China, Modi will probably seek from Putin support for his new Kashmir policy, which seeks to incorporate the region—also claimed by Pakistan—into India’s federal territory. China has spoken out against Modi’s move, while Moscow has withheld any criticism.

But the prime minister is likely just as interested in new nuclear projects and continuing arms deals—as well as opportunities in Russia’s Far East. In the run-up to the forum, officials and investors from five Indian states have been led around the Far East to look at possibilities, including in diamond mining to feed India’s huge market.

India’s ties to Russia—and before that the Soviet Union—have diminished as New Delhi’s relationship with the US has improved over the past decade. But Modi strengthened them earlier this year with a $5.4 billion deal to buy Russia’s S-400 air-defense system.

Russia has said it is ready to make all necessary efforts to get the deal done by 2023 as scheduled despite severe objections from Washington.

“The contract will be realized fully,” Russian state agency RIA quoted Roman Babushkin, diplomatic adviser to Russia’s embassy in India, as saying. “We intend to make that happen.”

Russian and Indian delegations will also discuss boosting current atomic cooperation with a new nuclear-energy reactor in India.

For Abe, talks with Putin are part of Tokyo’s pursuit of inroads with Asian and Pacific countries as the US—under a Trump administration seen as looking increasingly inward—comes to be regarded as a less reliable bulwark against China.

“The Japanese are involved in very elaborate contingency planning against possible Chinese moves, especially at a time when the US is becoming less reliable. And for this reason, they’re trying to make a network of relationships, including with Russia,” said Vasily Kashin, an East Asia expert at the Moscow-based School of Higher Economics.

For Russia, flirtations with China’s regional rivals come at little expense.

“There is a vagueness in their relationship that both Russia and China are comfortable with,” said Kashin. “They both understand the other needs other partners.”

To make progress with Russia may require Abe to retreat on a territorial dispute he has vowed to resolve, over a group of islands seized from Japan by Soviet Union in 1945.

The islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the South Kurils, have become symbols of national sovereignty in both nations, raising the political cost of any concession. Though there was talk from both sides of progress a year ago, the only new agreement that Abe and Putin emerged with from their meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June was to cooperate on garbage disposal on the disputed islands.

Little more is expected this week. In his more than two dozen meetings with Putin, Abe has generally avoided open conflict and tried to present a picture of improving relations. Japan observers say that is likely to continue at the Vladivostok meeting Thursday.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

First Published: Thu, September 05 2019. 08:52 IST