Pakistan Gets a Cuddle and a Hug
By M K Bhadrakumar
The back-to-back visits to Pakistan this week by China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and the Russian president’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, are rich in political symbolism and strategic content. The consultations came at a time when Pakistan is reeling under pressure from the United States, the future of Afghanistan remains complicated and regional security is in flux. The timing of the consultations will draw attention – since they were sandwiched between the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Chicago on May 20-21 and the forthcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Beijing on June 6-7. Afghanistan is a burning issue for both international groupings. But there is a global context, too. China and Russia closely coordinate on regional and international issues. What stands out is that Beijing and Moscow have come forward to extend political support to Pakistan at a time when Washington is trying to isolate it and make Islamabad bend to its wishes. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was invited to the NATO summit and then publicly humiliated. The alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and United States President Barack Obama refused to meet him. Obama further showed his displeasure by omitting Pakistan from the list of countries he thanked for supporting the military effort in Afghanistan and by pointedly asking Pakistan to cooperate. Through media leaks, US officials have since publicized that in a closed-door session, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subjected Zardari to an hour-long harangue. A dragon cuddle … Yang summed up his mission when he said in Islamabad, “Pakistan deserves full support form the international community.” He said Islamabad has played an important role in fighting terrorism and he called upon the international community to recognize it. Yang stressed, “China will continue to firmly support Pakistan in protecting its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and dignity.” He made it clear that he was in Islamabad to further strengthen and push forward China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan. Yang said that in the evolving international situation the Sino-Pak relationship has added strategic significance for promoting world peace, stability and development. China appreciated the important and active role played by Pakistan in international and regional affairs, he said. Yang underscored that China will unwaveringly pursue the policy of further strengthening its friendship with Pakistan and is willing to work together to deepen practical cooperation and strengthen the strategic coordination and elevate the partnership to new heights. Xinhua news agency reported that China and Pakistan have agreed to “strengthen multilateral coordination and to safeguard the common interests of both sides.” The reference seems to be to Pakistan’s role in the SCO, whose forthcoming summit in Beijing will be attended by Zardari. While Yang’s official visit had a broad-ranging agenda, Kabulov’s consultations were focused and purposive. He came to Islamabad primarily to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and the forthcoming visit to Pakistan by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kabulov is Moscow’s ace diplomatic troubleshooter on Afghanistan. The Pakistani accounts quoted him as saying to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani that “enormous commonalities” existed between Russia and Pakistan on regional issues and bilateral cooperation. Clearly, the reference is to the situation surrounding the Afghan problem, where both Russia and Pakistan have been seeking a bigger role while the US selectively engages them for specific roles. Putin’s visit to Pakistan, which is expected “soon”, will be the first by a Russian head of state in the six-decade long history of relations between the two countries. It will consolidate the remarkable makeover in the two countries’ relations in the past two to three years. The fact that Putin picked Pakistan to be one of his first visits abroad after taking over as president in the Kremlin itself testifies to the “mood swing” in the geopolitics of the region. Many trends need to be factored in here. Russia is gearing up to play an effective role in world affairs. Its assertive stance on Syria and Iran can be expected to extend to Pakistan and Central Asia. Russia kept its participation over the NATO summit on a low-key and saw to it that none of the Central Asian leaders who were invited – from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – attended either. Meanwhile, Moscow also hosted a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Putin is undertaking visits to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during the week ahead and is virtually launching his Eurasian project. There are signs that Moscow expects the SCO to take common positions on regional and international issues. The Beijing summit may formalize a “mechanism” to this end. The Russian media have forecast that the summit will take a stance supportive of the Russian concerns on the issue of the US missile defense. Meanwhile, the US-Russia reset remains in the doldrums and the probability is that it might well degenerate through the months ahead until a new administration takes over in White House early next year. The exchanges have become increasingly acrimonious at the diplomatic level. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has declared Russia to be a “destabilizing force on the world stage” and the US’s “No 1 geopolitical foe” and has promised to “re-reset” Obama’s reset of US-Russia ties. Obama cannot afford to be seen “soft” on Russia. Obviously, Russia has been dragged into the vortex of the US presidential election campaign. Disregarding Russian objections, NATO’s Chicago summit also decided to press ahead with the deployment of the US missile defense system. Moscow has already warned that it will take counter-measures. A new “fifth-generation” missile system was test-fired last week. Above all, Washington persists with an intrusive policy toward Russia’s domestic politics and is positioning itself to challenge Putin’s Eurasia project. … and a bear hug On the other hand, Russia and Pakistan have been closely consulting on the Afghan situation, and they recognize each other’s legitimate interests. Both put primacy on a regional approach to resolving the Afghan problem. Each side acknowledges that the other has an important role to play in the Afghan endgame. A good working relationship has developed through the past year or two. Russia works Pakistan within the bilateral framework as well as in the quadrilateral forum that includes Tajikistan and Afghanistan. On its part, Pakistan regards Russian regional policies positively as favoring its vital interests. Most importantly, Pakistan and Russia share a deep skepticism about the US-led “transition” in Afghanistan and the Afghan security forces’ capacity to maintain security. Both assess that the NATO has lost the war but is preparing the ground for keeping a long-term military presence at affordable cost. In sum, they strongly sense the need for them to work together through the upcoming “transition” in Afghanistan and the post-2014 period. The geopolitics of the Afghan war concerns Russia and Pakistan. Neither is willing to put faith in what the US claims to be the objectives of the war. Russia suspects the intentions of the US as much as Pakistan does. At the same time, both are conscious of the US/NATO’s vulnerability as regards the transit routes through Pakistan and the Northern Distribution Network. Pakistan isn’t alone in demanding a hike in the tariff for the transit routes. To be sure, Pakistan eagerly seeks an ally in Russia to gain strategic space vis-a-vis the US, while Moscow sees a window of opportunity to regain its lost influence in South Asia following the defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Thus, Pakistan is likely becoming a key element in the evolving Russian regional strategies. As Moscow would see it, the realization of the US objectives in Afghanistan and Central Asia is largely predicated on Pakistan’s cooperation as a willing partner. Put differently, in order to effectively counter the US’s strategic thrust into Central Asia, Russia (and China) would do well to strengthen Pakistan’s strategic autonomy and its capacity to withstand US pressures. Pakistan, on its part, has shown remarkable grit in standing up to US pressures. The US’s so-called New Silk Road project to erode Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia itself becomes a non-starter without Pakistan’s whole-hearted cooperation. However, a Russian-Pakistani partnership cannot exist in a vacuum. The bilateral ties are next to nothing at present. In order for a strategic partnership to survive and gather strength over time, it needs substantive content. This is where Putin’s visit can be expected to set the ball rolling. Kabulov told Gilani that Putin looked forward to a “productive” visit that would be instrumental in enhancing multi-faceted cooperation between Russia and Pakistan. Kabulov discussed the agenda of Putin’s visit. Gilani listed the upgrade of Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi, defense cooperation and energy among potential areas of cooperation. (Interestingly, Kabulov’s meetings included a call on Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kiani.) Significantly, Gilani welcomed Russian participation in the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project and pointed out that “some specific proposals” have been discussed already. In geopolitical terms, the warming of the Russian-Pakistani ties meshes with the growing coordination between Moscow and Beijing on regional and international issues. The fact that Yang and Kabulov visited Pakistan at the same time suggests a degree of Sino-Russian coordination in their regional policy toward Pakistan. Indeed, neither Yang nor Kabulov overtly nudged Pakistan toward a “strategic defiance” of the US. But then, they didn’t have to. Suffice to say, the new paradigm already presents Pakistan with an unprecedented opportunity to negotiate with the US from a position of strength. The prospect of Putin’s visit to Pakistan will be highly disquieting for Washington at the present juncture. In normal circumstances, Washington could have viewed the rising curve of Russian-Pakistani relations with equanimity, since both Russia and China would only have a moderating influence on Pakistan. But these are extraordinary times, with the US at loggerheads with Moscow and Beijing. The utter failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan stands exposed in terms of its exceptionalism and the stark absence of a regional consensus. Yang and Kabulov could and should have been the US’s best allies in urging Pakistan to work with the international community for an enduring peace in Afghanistan. The paradox is that even in the prevailing situation of high volatility in the US’s relations with Russia and China they might well have done that, but without Washington’s bidding.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.