India and Russia to look at boosting trade, defence ties

Indian Prime Minister Modi's two-day Moscow visit will focus on repairing their economic relationship

India and Russia will look at boosting trade and defence cooperation during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Moscow visit, which analysts say is aimed at reinvigorating an old friendship overshadowed by Delhi's growing ties with Washington.

Mr Modi will hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and meet Russian executives during the two-day visit starting today.

Defence discussions are expected to focus on joint production of helicopters, leasing of a nuclear submarine by India and construction of six new nuclear power plants in southern India.

This is in addition to the six plants, including one that is already operational, that Russia is building in Tamil Nadu.

"We have a very special and privileged strategic relationship that has spanned key sectors such as defence, nuclear cooperation... there will be lot of discussions on that," said Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar. He added the "economic pillars" of the relationship would be a "big theme" of the visit.

LONG FRIENDSHIP

India-Russia ties are a process... that has been going on for 60 years and more. Defence ties have been privileged over others and very, very sensitive technology is being shared.

PROFESSOR ANURADHA CHENOY, Jawaharlal Nehru University

India is fond of calling Russia its "time-tested friend", in a reference to close links from the days of the Cold War. For years, India depended on Russia for its military supplies and civilian nuclear cooperation, but in recent years it has diversified, buying military equipment from the United States and Israel, and entering into civilian nuclear cooperation with dozens of other countries.

Still, defence ties remained important, analysts said.

"This particular visit, there is the issue of India getting nuclear submarines. It is a very important visit," said Professor Anuradha Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"India-Russia ties are a process ... that has been going on for 60 years and more. Defence ties have been privileged over others and very, very sensitive technology is being shared."

But trade ties have lagged with bilateral trade at US$9.51 billion (S$13.3 billion) in 2014, while India-US bilateral trade passed US$100 billion in 2014.

Experts said increased trade links would be a priority on the visit.

"If you go back in history, the Soviet Union was India's biggest economic trading partner in the late eighties - doing business at US$5 billion," said Mr Nandan Unnikrishnan, vice-president and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

"Today, it hasn't crossed US$10 billion. It is a reflection of how weak the economic relationship has become. It is necessary to address this.

"The strategic partnership cannot survive unless there is solid economic foundation."

Many believe that India could now benefit from Russia's deteriorating ties with major trading partner Turkey, following its downing of a Russian plane on its border with Syria last month.

Said Mr Jaishankar: "We do see Russia today as a market that offers great possibilities. If we consciously do more promotion work, trade will increase. Nobody can be satisfied with less."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'India and Russia to look at boosting trade, defence ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe