A short note from New Delhi on the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently attended the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), hosted by the Russian city of Vladivostok, which was held on September 11th and 12th of 2018. President Xi (who became the first Chinese President to attend the EEF) met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the third time in as many months. Significantly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also attended the Forum, which was titled “The Russian Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities.”

Both Xi and Putin repeatedly referred to not just their close personal rapport (Chinese President Xi Jinping, while referring to their individual ties, stated that his and Putin’s ‘friendship was getting stronger all the time’), but also the deepening of economic and strategic ties between Russia and China, as well as the convergence on key global issues (neither side missed the opportunity to target the US for it’s inward looking economic policies).

China was also participating in military exercises, held in Siberia, which have been dubbed ‘Vostok 2018’ (Beijing clarified that these military exercises were not targeted at any third party). The military exercise (September 11-17, 2018) involves 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes, and a number of warships. China sent over 3,000 People’s Liberation Army personnel for the military exercises.

China-Russia Economic Times

A number of issues were discussed during the course of the Forum. Both sides agreed that there was a need to accelerate bilateral economic ties. Trade has witnessed a significant rise in recent years, while in 2017 it was estimated at over $80 billion. In 2018, bilateral trade could surpass $100 billion. Chinese investments in Russia have also been increasing. According to the Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF; set up in 2012), 150 representatives from China and Russia have already identified 73 projects estimated at $100 billion. Also according to the RCIF, 7 projects estimated at well over $4 billion have already been undertaken.

Both sides also agreed to promote stronger synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Given the fact that the Forum was held in Russia’s Far Eastern Region (RFE), the need to increase Chinese investment in the RFE was high on the agenda. President Xi stated that China has always been a key participant in development projects in the Eastern parts of Russia. China’s Shandong Hi-Speed Group is also likely to invest in highway projects in the RFE.

Recent years have witnessed an increasing Chinese economic presence in Khabarovsk, which is the second largest city in the Eastern Region and 800 kilometres from Vladivostok. It may also be pertinent to point out that a large number of Russians have been uncomfortable with the growing Chinese economic clout, as well as immigrants. In 2010, the Chinese population in the Russian Far East was estimated at less than 30,000, though according to some estimates the population is much higher.

Protectionism

Both Russia and China warned against growing economic protectionism. Xi stated that he was all for greater international cooperation, and even lashed out at the growing tendency towards protectionism. Xi’s views were echoed by Putin, who stated that ‘the world and global economy are coming up against new forms of protectionism today with different kinds of barriers which are increasing.’

Putin made the point that protectionism was a threat, especially to Asia-Pacific (significantly, the current Trump administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific,’ much to the chagrin of the Chinese).

What was also significant was that Xi came down heavily on ‘unilateralism’ at a time when China itself is being accused of ‘expansionist tendencies’ and promoting ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy.’ What was even more interesting was a reference to ‘UN Charter.’

The message emanating from the forum was clear: that the economic as well as strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing is likely to strengthen, and both will try to develop an alternative narrative to that currently emerging from Washington.

Significance of meeting: Why India would be watching

New Delhi would be observing the Forum and meetings between Putin and Xi, since it’s own relations between Russia and China are of vital importance. While Russia is important in the security context, economic ties with Beijing are important for New Delhi.

New Delhi attaches immense significance to ties with Moscow

There are many in analysts in New Delhi who argue that India should be cautious in strengthening strategic ties with the US, given that this could cause friction in New Delhi’s relations with Moscow (Russia’s improved defense ties with Pakistan are often cited as a consequence of New Delhi moving too close to Washington DC). There are others who argue that New Delhi’s ties with Moscow are robust and time-tested, and will not be impacted by close ties with Washington DC. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be visiting India in October 2018 (for the 19th annual India-Russia Summit), while Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, during her Moscow visit, met with Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Both of them jointly chaired the 23rd India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical, and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) meeting. A number of issues, including the need to boost bilateral trade and enhance people-to-people contact, were discussed. Significantly, this was Swaraj’s third visit to Russia in 11 months and she stated that India accorded ‘high priority’ to ties with Russia.

The fact that Swaraj’s visit to Russia took place after a successful 2+2 dialogue with the US, where a number of important defense agreements including COMCASA were signed, shows that New Delhi realizes the importance of ties with Russia. India is likely to sign a deal with Russia for the procurement of the S-400 air defence system, even though the USA has not given India any assurances with regard to a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) if India purchases defence equipment from Russia. During the visit, India is also likely to go ahead with an agreement with Russia for four frigates for the Indian Navy. While two of these will be manufactured in Kaliningrad, two will be manufactured in Goa.

New Delhi-Beijing ties

The issue of trade tariffs, which was highlighted by Putin and Xi, has also not gone unnoticed by New Delhi. One of the reasons (apart from the desire for peace and tranquility on borders) why India has been pro-actively reaching out to China is a convergence on economic issues. In fact, days after the 2+2 Summit, US President Trump, while referring to India and China, stated that the US has been providing subsidies to India and China for far too long and can not afford to do so any longer.

In terms of investments, there has not been much progress so far due to political disputes, but there is scope for greater economic cooperation between both countries through enhanced connectivity. New Delhi, on its part, should be open to projects like BCIM Corridor (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar). The recent proposal out of Beijing to start a railway line from Kunming to Kolkata may not seem possible in the short run, but in the long run it is definitely worth examining, and would give a boost to economies of India’s Eastern and North Eastern states. Interestingly, on September 9th, 2018, Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China for agreeing to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). New Delhi should see this connectivity project as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Conclusion

New Delhi, while enhancing strategic cooperation with Washington, needs to keep in mind that there is a plethora of economic as well as other issues of global importance where New Delhi can find common ground with Beijing and Moscow. India bilaterally shares robust economic ties with China, and a strategic relationship with Russia. All three countries are also working closely in BRICS as well as SCO. New Delhi also needs to keep in mind that while strategic ties with Washington are important, Trump’s unpredictability will compel New Delhi to keep all its options open and think in a nuanced manner. While historically New Delhi shares close ties with Moscow, the logic of geography can not be ignored in the context of India-China ties.

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