Russia warms to Pakistan as opportunity knocks all over Asia

The China-Pakistan economic corridor is a boon for both countries and also Iran and Russia, contends Shaukat Qadir

Gwadar port in Pakistan is a key part of the Pakistan China Economic Corridor. Behram Baloch / AFP
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Russia has been warming to Pakistan for some years. This has happened at a key point for it and its neighbours. Although India claimed non-aligned status throughout the Cold War, it was always among Russia’s preferred allies – just as Pakistan was to the US.

As the US seems to be turning away from Pakistan, it would seem logical for Russia to turn towards Pakistan.

Meantime, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC, has caused concerns in India.

An increasing number of Indians are worried about whether this nexus poses a threat. However, to me it seems that the economic and strategic positioning of nations is creating new opportunities. Perhaps it is time to examine these.

Let us begin with Russia. While it feels betrayed by the UN-approved intervention in Libya, the US has imposed further sanctions on Russia. Lately, the EU has followed suit. Faced with economic strangulation, Russia turned towards China.

The most lucrative deal that followed from these overtures was when Rosneft, Russia’s state controlled energy organisation, finalised a $270 billion agreement, doubling oil supply to China.

China is having its own problems with the US. It may have been given an entree to Afghanistan but it is faced with a challenge from America in the South China Sea, and feels threatened by the numerous US naval bases in the region.

For China, therefore, CPEC is not merely a venture to improve its economy, it also checks the hold the US has in the Pacific.

It is for this reason that Pakistan and its port of Gwadar are invaluable, as CPEC only becomes an economic corridor when it gets access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan.

The Russian dream is also Pakistan-dependent, because of geography.

In the past, Russia did everything possible to destabilise Pakistan and, most particularly, Balochistan, the Pakistani province where Gwadar lies.

Now that it is likely to become a beneficiary of CPEC it will, therefore, do everything possible to see Pakistan stabilised.

No wonder then, that Russia is warming to Pakistan.

Pakistan is also aware of the significance of the geopolitical repositioning in the region and the opportunities that might accrue.

For the past few years Pakistan has been seeking to broaden its diplomatic base, reduce its dependence on the US, and improve relations with its neighbours. CPEC has offered Pakistan a better bargaining position and some liberty of action, for which it is taking advantage.

Consequently, not only has Pakistan inked a deal with Russia for combat helicopters, it is also importing engines for its fighter jets, which it is building jointly with China. Furthermore, the Russian state-owned Rostekh Corporation has undertaken to build a 1,100-kilometre gas pipeline to Pakistan by 2017.

On the other hand, Iran has agreed to join the CPEC. Another victim of US-UN imposed sanctions, it too is economically isolated. China, which will build and fund the liquid natural gas terminal at Gwadar and the pipelines connecting this terminal to inland Pakistan, has also indicated its willingness to help complete the Iran-Pakistan pipeline.

China is as interested in Iran joining CPEC. For Iran, it opens opportunities to export oil, and for China, to import it.

An Iran-Pakistan-China oil pipeline will be a dream come true for all three countries.

In my opinion, the nexus is already there but for economic reasons than strategic ones.

However, China has made its position on CPEC and the inclusion of India very clear. Again, geographic realities, which afford India so many advantages, dictate that India does not naturally figure in the CPEC.

Consequently, while China will welcome India if it chooses to join it will have to give China greater access to the South Asian markets it currently finds itself unable to tap into.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer