Pakistan, Russia and Central Asia
In view of the changed geo-political realities in Central and South Asia, Pakistan is well poised to become a catalyst to shared regional prosperity in addition to playing a pivotal role in promoting regional peace and security, a phenomenon resulting from the new geographical configuration of Central Asia after dismemberment of former Soviet Union, emergence of China as an economic powerhouse, Pakistan’s geographical location and the pragmatic recalibration of our foreign policy based on regional connectivity. The dividends of this new narrative are already visible.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is being billed as a game changer not only in the region but also at the global level, is a ranting testimony of the importance and the role that Pakistan can play in bringing economic revolution in the region. Pakistan’s policy of reaching out to the Central Asian states and revisiting its relations with Russia is well on track with encouraging results which ultimately would benefit the entire region through up-gradation of economic cooperation and enhanced collaboration to tackle security challenges confronting the region.
In the emerging scenario in the region and the chances of reincarnation of a bi-polar world becoming brighter with the expressed Russian resolve to re-assert itself at the global level, relations between Pakistan and Russia are extremely important. It is indeed very encouraging to note that the decades old mistrust and acrimony between the two is giving way to warmth and bonhomie with both sides trying to morph them into a strategic relationship characterised by expanded ties in the economic and political fields. Russia has supported and helped Pakistan in becoming full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It has withdrawn its opposition to CASA-1000, a trans-regional project for transmission of electricity from Kyrgtzstan to Pakistan through Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin, during the 10th summit meeting of SCO in Petersburg, also announced to provide $500 million towards the cost of the venture. Observers attribute this change in Russian stance to her reinvented strategy to wean away Turkmenistan from the Trans-Caspian energy ventures. The other reason advanced by some is that Russia might be contemplating to develop a geo-political axis extending from Russia across Central and South Asia to the Middle East as a strategy to counter US plan for Greater Middle East or Greater Central Asia. However, in my view, the other very pertinent factor undoubtedly has been the new narrative of the present government in regards to the management of its international relations with neighbours and regional countries. Russia also supports TAPI, a gas line from Tajikistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In November 2014 Pakistan and Russia signed a bilateral agreement for defence cooperation aimed at strengthening military-to-military relations between the two countries. In June 2015 Moscow lifted an embargo on the delivery of military weapons and equipment to Pakistan and in August 2015 the two countries signed a landmark deal for sale of MI-35 Hind E attack helicopters designed for attack and military transport missions. Talks are also underway between the two for the delivery of Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets. Pakistan and Russia have also signed an agreement recently for the construction of a gas pipeline between Lahore and Karachi by Russia involving a cost of $2 billion.
The Russian Minister for Drug Control Services Viktor Ivanov who was here last week to attend 4th session of Pakistan-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation (IGC) has also made an offer for supply of LNG to Pakistan by Russia and also stressed the need for developing direct shipping and air links between the two countries as well as the establishment of banking channels to multiply the bilateral trade. During the IGC session both sides agreed to establish five working groups to oversee the implementation of the projects agreed between the two countries. A welcome development during the session was the settlement of 20-year long dispute between the two countries under which Islamabad will pay back to Russia around $92 million while the remaining amount will be disbursed among the affected parties. It was also decided to kick start negotiations for Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.
The visits to Pakistan by Prime Minister of Belarus and President of Tajikistan and Prime Minister’s visit to Uzbekistan during the current month are also of immense significance in regards to building cooperation and connectivity with these states. During the visit of President of Tajikistan both the countries besides enhancing economic cooperation also agreed on the construction of three highways to connect the countries through land route. The three highways are Gwadar-Peshawar-Kabul-Dunshanbe route, Khunjrab-Kalasu-Murghab route and Chitral-Eskahem-Dushanbe route. The Tajik President also assured Pakistan of its staunch support for the infrastructure projects under the CPEC and completion of CASA-1000.
The foregoing developments are likely to have far-reaching impact on the economic profile of the region as well as the security situation, especially fight against terrorism as almost all the countries of Central Asia, and Russia and China have been affected by this scourge. They all want an end to the menace of terrorism by promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan, in which Pakistan decidedly will have to play a pivotal role, an irrefutable reality acknowledged universally. Pakistan’s success against terrorism within its own territory is also linked to peace and stability in Afghanistan and so is its quest for building regional linkages. It has already made earnest efforts in bringing the Taliban and Afghan government on the table, a process that was disrupted due to the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death. However, Pakistan remains steadfast in its resolve to continue its efforts even in the changed circumstances provided its concerns are appropriately addressed and supported by other stakeholders, particularly the US. The recent visits of Prime Minister and COAS to US seem to have created a better understanding of the Pakistani stance on Afghanistan and hopefully the former would take appropriate actions to address those apprehensions to enable Pakistan to facilitate the resumption of the disrupted dialogue.
Pakistan’s security and economic interests, arguably, are tied to the overall security environment in the region and economic interdependence among the South Asian and Central Asian states. The government is indeed moving in the right direction in this regard and its efforts are showing positive results. Reconciliation in Afghanistan is imperative for the success of CPEC, connectivity with Central Asian states and the completion of trans-regional projects like TAPI and CASA-1000. Pakistan surely will be the biggest beneficiary of all these initiatives.