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Asia Times
June 18, 2003
Now it's Russia's turn to look east
By Rahul Bedi

NEW DELHI - Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's extended trip across Asia - including India, Pakistan and Cambodia - is part of Moscow's "Look East" policy to counter Washington's push in these regions.

Ivanov, who met senior Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Monday, is seeking economic and security relations across a vast region extending from the oil-rich Central Asian republics to Southeast Asia in a move reminiscent of the Cold War era.

Russia remains a close Indian ally and its principal weapon supplier. It is reportedly attempting to revive the five-year old proposal for a Moscow-Delhi-Beijing axis against US ascendancy to ensure a multi-polar world.

Ivanov's Delhi visit came a week before Vajpayee leaves for China, the first Indian prime minister to travel to Beijing in a decade to forge closer political and diplomatic links between the world's two most populous countries.

Russia's proactive policy across Asia has coincided with the US's post-Iraq plans to re-deploy its forces around the world, particularly the "arc of instability" that stretches from the Central Asian republics to North Korea.

In retaliation, a considerably weakened Russia, following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, is seeking to forge an "alliance of stability" across this region through subtle partnerships and by playing on latent fears of lone-superpower hegemony.

Consequently, a Russian naval task force, the largest after the Soviet Union disintegrated, is now deployed for an indeterminate period in the Indian Ocean and surrounding seas. This area is fast becoming a potential confrontation zone, not only among China, India and Pakistan, but also potentially between Russia and the US.

After extended maneuvers with the Indian navy earlier this month, the Russian squadron of nine warships, including strategic bombers, is "marking time" in the Indian Ocean at a time when the US military is firmly ensconced in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is "marching" swiftly eastward toward Moscow.

Russian naval officers claimed that their Indian Ocean deployment is not connected to the US-led military presence in Iraq and insisted that their squadron would not enter the Persian Gulf. "This is a continuation of our old dialogue and the good relations between the Indian and Russian navies," said Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Fedorov. The exercises are not linked to the situation in Iraq, he added.

But analysts disagree. "The maritime strategic focus after the Cold War and especially after September 11 has shifted to the Indian Ocean region and Russia wants to register itself there," said Commodore Uday Bhaskar, deputy head of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Analyses in Delhi.

Others claimed that the Russian presence in the Indian Ocean underlined the importance of "exercising control" over the Indian Ocean through which pass vital oil routes from West Asia. Russia recently announced plans to boost its military presence in the Central Asian republics by establishing permanent defense bases in Kyrgzystan and Tajikistan in order to offset around a dozen overt and covert "staging points" that the US government had access to in the region - including Georgia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - after the 2001 Afghan war.

The US military bases at Manas, 30 kilometers from Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, adjoining China, and a similar though little publicized presence of US-led allies at Khanabad in Uzbekistan, are of grave concern to Moscow, which anticipates an eventual clash with Washington over the area's vast oil and gas deposits.

The US is already the leading foreign investor in Central Asia's energy sector, openly declaring that it wants to promote political and economic stability in the area to safeguard its energy imports and to combat international terrorism and arms trafficking.

Russia and China are also proposing to turn the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional Central Asian grouping of which they are members alongside Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, into a larger coalition and to extend its mandate beyond the region by inducting India, Pakistan and possibly even Iran.

Formed six years ago to deal with border issues, combat ethnic and religious tensions in each other's countries and to safeguard against the export of terrorism by Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the SCO is re-aligning itself given the changed realities in the region. The SCO is seen as the means through which Russia and China now have a "hidden agenda" to frustrate Washington's burgeoning influence in Central Asia.

Vajpayee and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold their next summit in Moscow in November. "Russia has a special place in India's foreign policy and we intend to further strengthen the time-tested relations between our two countries," Indian ambassador to Russia Krishnan Raghunath was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS news agency in Moscow.

From Delhi, Ivanov went to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh for a regional security meeting with the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), where his attendance is also part of Russia's "Look-East" strategy.

Aided considerably by anti-US feelings in the region - there were widespread anti-US protests before the Iraq war in several ASEAN nations - Russia recently sold its multi-role fighters to Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia ordered two Sukhoi-30 and two Su-27 interceptor/ground-attack aircraft, and Malaysia signed a US$1.4 billion deal for 18 advanced Su-30MK fighters - and chose these over US F-18 Super Hornets.

Officials say that Kuala Lumpur's decision to buy the Russian fighters would increase India's strategic and business interests in Southeast Asia, as it is expected to provide training and servicing to the Royal Malaysian Air Force for its new Su 30s.

"India has acted as a gateway for Russian arms sales to Southeast Asia," Dr Alex Vaskin of the Indo-Russian Strategic Forum said. In the last decade, Malaysia has bought Russian MiG 29 fighters and Mi-17 helicopters, after studying India's experience with these aircraft, he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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