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Putin’s visit in context

Published Sep 18, 2012 12:15am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

raza gg Sep 18, 2012 09:48pm
pak needs good relation with almost all his neighbors,especially who are in a condition to help us in quitting the war..Russia is a better option in this context..i hope pak-russia relations will bloom in spite of bad past.
David Sep 18, 2012 09:50pm
Does india have good relations with her neighbours. Absolutely not. All of india's neighbours have been the victim of indian agression & terrorism since it's independence from Britain. Look at Pakistan, Bangladesh, SriLanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikem etc...all have been bullied by hindus. Sikem is swallwed by her. Pakistan bifercated, srilanka was a constant victem of indian terrorism through tamil tigers for almost 60 please do not try to make india a pious neighbour. ...
Girish Sep 18, 2012 09:54pm
China has successfully forged mutually beneficial relations with its neighbors is as true as a thriving minority population in Pakistan. I don't know where the author gets his news, but a quick look at the headlines shows that China is on the verge of trading blows with Japan over a set of rocks. Have your facts checked, Mr.Khan
Srini, Chennai Sep 18, 2012 05:57pm
Wow! Do you really think China has good relationship with it any of its neighbour, except perhaps the problem child like Pakistan and North Korea. It has problem with all decent democratic countries including India, Russia, Japan, Mangolia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Burma. Please check your facts before you start to vomit.
aviratam Sep 18, 2012 04:48am
A couple of quick comments: Surprising to learn that India had " not emulated China well in forging mutually beneficial relations with its neighbors." I know Mr. Khan is a very busy man, but if he watches a little television and read the newspapers, he would know that China has difficult relations with a number of its neighbors, such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines etc. growing out of its claims on islands in the South China Sea (apart from its differences with India). China, on the other hand, has not been subjected to constant terrorist acts from any of its neighbors. Putin has restored some pride to Russians. He is partly responsible for the upturn in ties between Russia and India, after a hiatus during the Yeltsin-Kozyrev era. We should welcome Russia's interest in South Asia (apart from India). While Moscow cannot provide immediate succor to many of the problems Pakistan faces, Islamabad should plan to engage the Russians long-term, particularly in its areas of strength, such as energy and heavy industry.
Sriram Sep 18, 2012 12:56pm
I'm sorry, but facts belie the author's initial assertion that China has "forged mutually beneficial relationships with all its neighbours". Even the author's later bland statement about rising tensions in the South China sea etc is contradictory to that. Look at all of its smaller neighbours(except North Korea) - Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, each of them is now expanding military relations with the USA because they're scared of the mutual benefit they may get from the Chinese relationship. The Chinese are throwing their weight around too early in their path to super-powerdom. They just cannot afford Russia as an enemy - being far bigger, quite rich, and a dictatorship as well. But India is different, since Pakistan is more than willing to serve China's interest in trying to peg India down.
Anwer Kirmani Sep 18, 2012 07:49am
A very well scripted article. Pakistan's options were bound to be highly constricted since its decisions to join CENTO and SEATO. Our policy architects unfortunately because of their tunnel vision could not foresee the straitjacketing that would ensue. Our decision to join the first Afghan war against the Russians based on exploited and imaginary fear was the final nail in the coffin. All sane leaders including Benazir Bhutto had advised against it but to no avail. Pakistan desperately needs to create more economic and foreign policy space to shed the vice-like grip on the country by expanding its horizons beyond the present customary one. Russia and India present good opportunities which should not be wasted.
HINDU Sep 18, 2012 09:15am
"India has maintained a high rate of growth for yearsbut has not emulated China well in forgingmutually beneficial relations with its neighbours." but actually, China hasn't good relationship with almost all its neighbors like India,Mongolia,south korea,Japan,Taiwan,Russia,Vietnam etc
Sam Sep 18, 2012 01:12pm
This is a very thoughtful observation from the seasoned diplomat that Tanveer Khan Sahab is. The bureaucracy and the politician may still feel comfortable being in the US camp but the need of the hour is to have a broader foreign policy. In post cold war, post war on terror era, one cannot afford to be heavily reliant on a single economic power.