The Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor: The Implications for China

A plan for a maritime corridor between Chennai in India and Vladivostok in Russia was recently formalized through a Memorandum of Intent (MoI) between the Indian Ministry of Shipping and Russia’s Ministry of Transport. Upon coming into effect, the route is expected to pass through the disputed South China Sea (and several other security hotspots), and increase Indian economic involvement in the Chinese-dominated Russian Far East.

What is the VCMC?

The Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC) has the potential to not only reset the trade route for India and Russia through Northeast Asia, but also aggravate China’s security concerns in the South China Sea and its grander aspirations with the Maritime Silk Route. Being both a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) constructed by Russia and China and part of the larger Indo-Pacific narrative with the U.S. and Japan, India seems to be continuing its traditional policy of balancing the influence of various powers involved in its strategic interests.

Currently, India and Russia are connected via the Mumbai-St Petersburg shipping route, but the VCMC would cut that distance by half, saving significant economic costs. An MoI was signed in early September during Modi’s visit to Vladivostok, formalizing plans to construct this corridor. However, it should be noted that no official word is out on when it is likely to be implemented. Regardless, the numerous strategic implications this potential route brings with it cannot be ignored. Modi’s trip to Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) significantly boosted India-Russia ties, with a number of agreements signed to meet bilateral trade goals set for 2025. Defense cooperation has always been one of the strongest pillar of the ties, with several joint research and bilateral projects underway, potentially facilitated by the new maritime corridor.

Implications on the South China Sea and China’s Maritime Silk Route

With a shipping corridor between India and Russia passing through the South China Sea, Chinese suspicions will no doubt rise. India is clearly seeking to establish its own trade route in the region, independent from China. A sea route passing through the South China Sea implies an increased maritime presence for India, as well as the potential for naval operations in this highly disputed region. India does not seem likely to undertake its own version of “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, but an increased naval presence in the area is of huge symbolic significance considering the vast military asymmetry between India and China. With talks of the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with the U.S and Japan and the emphasis being placed upon a rule-based Indo-Pacific, this maritime corridor is beginning to be viewed as a challenge to China’s influence in the Indian Ocean and as a counter to the larger Maritime Silk Route (MSR).

India has enjoyed a position of preeminence in the Indian Ocean region for many years, which has more recently been contested by China’s relationships with countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. A maritime corridor with Russia would be a convenient guise for India to use in regaining its influence and to start projecting maritime power within its neighborhood.

India’s interest in the South China Sea is gradually increasing, with Indian oil company ONG Videsh having sought its sixth extension to explore a Vietnamese oil block in the contested sea. 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.

What does this mean for China? An increased Indian naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and in seas both south and east of China will have implications for the Chinese String of Pearls strategy and hold additional bearing on China’s legal position in the South China Sea. Having a relatively weaker naval presence, India’s position has been typically undermined vis. a vis. China’s Indian Ocean strategy, which will potentially be rethought. It is becoming apparent that Delhi has found the importance of enhanced maritime awareness and capabilities to protect national interests, especially in the wake of growing Chinese influence in its maritime neighborhood.

Russia recently backed India’s move in Kashmir as a “unilateral matter”, giving no reason to believe they will not view Vietnam’s sale of oil blocks in the South China Sea through a similar lens. The VCMC could potentially enable ease of access to Russia in the region. It may be early to predict what kind of response these implications will elicit from China, but judging by the past, a reality where Moscow and Delhi are potential stakeholders in the South China Sea is unlikely to be welcomed by Beijing.

Cooperation in the Russian Far-East

The VCMC is expected to increase India’s involvement with the Russian Far East. In September, Modi launched his “Far East policy” and extended 1 billion USD for the development of the Russian Far East and to increase India’s engagement in the region. This follows Putin’s call for Indian and Japanese investment in the region to balance the increasing Chinese economic presence in the Russian Far East. This unprecedented loan from India for the development of the region is an unequivocal win for Putin in his attempts to diversify both sources of investment and the demographics of the Far East. India’s involvement in the Far East could expand the movement of Indian labor to a part of the world which is currently largely Chinese-dominated, thereby  reducing some of the economic clout that China possesses in the region.

Clear motives exist for Russia to facilitate the expansion of Indian influence into Eurasia. Russia is becoming increasingly wary of Chinese economic leverage, having assumed the role of presidency in the SCO in order to maintain its influence in key areas. While Russia and China may be experiencing a rapprochement, this is only a recent reality following a long period of negotiation and a history of political differences.

In pursuing the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime corridor, numerous economic benefits ensue for both parties – benefits from bilateral commercial trade, oil and gas shipments into India, Russia gaining a foothold in the larger Indo-Pacific, and a diversified trade route with Northeast Asia through maritime means. There is plenty of room for this corridor to be portrayed as purely economic in the face of Chinese suspicions. However, by developing a maritime economic corridor with India, Russia aims to “balance” China’s dominating economic influence in Eurasia through seeking leverage with India. However, the question remains; how are the various security and economic implications of the corridor likely to play out in the region?