WHEN I wrote earlier on Pakistan-Russia relations (Dawn, March 13), I argued that Vladimir Putin’s triumphant return to the office of president would ensure continuity of the process by which Islamabad and Moscow are overcoming the distrust of decades.
Furthermore, Pakistan’s efforts since the mid-1990s to reassure Moscow that it was not an implacable ideological foe were beginning to carry conviction. With inter-governmental consultations in Islamabad, the stage has been set for President Putin’s historic visit in early October.
No less significantly, high-level contacts between military leaders of the two countries are under way. It is time to map the promising landscape in which bilateral and larger strategic considerations are converging. Given the troubled past, it is a new beginning where building blocks for long-term cooperation can come alike from bilateral benefits and from sharing a new perspective on changing regional and pan-Asian equations.
Unlike Europe where an economic union and a powerful military pact have shaped the march of history for decades, the Asian continent has lacked stable security architecture; it has a few multilateral economic institutions that function with varying degrees of success. South Asia, inhabited by more than a billion people, is particularly deficient in this respect. Some of the worst conflicts of the post-Second World War period have taken place in Asia.
It has, however, not prevented a number of Asian countries from achieving phenomenal economic success. China, the leader in bringing about a shift in the centre of gravity of global economy eastwards, has also demonstrated unusual diplomatic skill in resolving or mitigating contentious issues with its neighbours. India has maintained a high rate of growth for years but has not emulated China well in forging mutually beneficial relations with its neighbours.
More recently, the United States has been strengthening its presence in Asia and is now engaged in ‘pivoting’ strongly to the Pacific. This strategic manoeuvre is not restricted to an upgraded Pacific Command but also aims at reducing the gravitational pull of the Chinese economy for a growing number of Asian states. Washington continues to count on Japan, with which it has a formal treaty, and India, that it hopes to enlist as a strategic counterweight to China in creating a new Asian order under its oversight.
Inevitably, it would lead to fresh contentions. Considering the worsening of tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the Asian continent would see more flux. Meanwhile, Moscow has often been seen to be too preoccupied with the consequences of the disintegration of the Soviet Union to be an actor of substance in Asian affairs despite occupying a vast space of the continent.
A retrospective look at 12 years of President Putin’s ascendancy in Russian politics leaves one in no doubt that reviving a Eurasian policy was always an essential aspect of his endeavour to restore his nation’s global status. Moscow’s efforts to establish special relations with the states that broke away began soon after the unravelling of the Soviet Union. For Moscow, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, were steps towards what is often described as Russia’s geopolitical resurgence.
In an article published by Izvestia in October 2011, Putin proposed, notwithstanding reservations of Ukraine and Georgia, that the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan should become the cornerstone of a Eurasian Union including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and open to other states. The suggested Union would have a single currency.
Putin has carefully tended relations with China and India. He widened the quest and lent his name and authority to ideas for a more robust engagement with the Pacific region. Two years ago, a major Russian institution produced a seminal report Going East: Russia’s Asia-Pacific Strategy, the leitmotif of which was Russia’s restored capacity to address relations with the West, stability in the South and a window to the East.
The just concluded meeting of the leaders of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Vladivostok represents a high water mark in implementing this comprehensive approach. Way back in 1996 in that port city of the czarist dreams of a position of prestige and profit in the East, I heard a small group of local intellectuals express despair about the region’s future. Leading up to the Apec meeting in 2012, Putin had committed $20bn to its uplift with projects going far beyond the cosmetic demands of hosting a large international event. Clearly, the objective is to equip Russia with the means to be more effective in the Asia-Pacific region.
If Moscow is now exploring a place for Pakistan in its reinvigorated Asia policy, Islamabad’s reasons for a substantive relationship with Russia also go beyond cooperation in some specific projects. Its excessive participation in the US-led war on terror led to noticeable shrinkage of the parameters of its foreign policy. The kind of assistance it received from the United States and most other partners since 9/11 did little good to its declining economy.
Pakistan needs enlargement of its diplomatic and economic space, a desire not always supported by its Western allies. The worst example of abridging Pakistan’s choices is the American opposition to the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline which, incidentally, may figure, together with the Turkmenistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, as areas of future cooperation with Russia. In fact, Pakistan’s best hope to overcome the crippling energy crunch seems to lie in large scale collaboration, be it in hydel or coal-based generation, with Russia and China.
Given Pakistan’s situation, Russia and China may expect preferential treatment. President Zardari has invested considerable energy in re-setting relations with Russia and strengthening ties with China. He should make sure that these expectations are not wantonly frustrated.
There is also a global interest in developing trade routes through the hub constituted by Pakistan and Afghanistan, and cordial relations between Pakistan and Russia can have a beneficial impact on the regional strategic balance. The quadrilateral summit of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Russia alone can open new vistas for future.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.