Russia, Pakistan and China drawing closer but New Delhi need not worry yet; relationship remains transactional

There is a certain amount of smugness in Pakistani media reports that army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is in Russia, meeting with the chief of the Russian Ground Forces, who is technically his counterpart. Commander of Russian Federation Ground Forces Colonel General Oleg Salyukov may have the longer title and command larger forces, but he is hardly the virtual head of the country, as General Bajwa is, in his.

File image of Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Reuters

File image of Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Reuters

The Pakistan media and the government — which nowadays is virtually the same thing — has presented the Russian outreach as a way to counter growing US pressure on Pakistan to end its patronage of diverse terrorists. The facts on the ground, however, tell a somewhat different story.

First, Russia is unlikely to emerge as a source of foreign aid assistance, in the manner that the US has been so far. Certainly, Russia is still number two in the list of arms exporters, and is the major power. Amidst a still shaky Russian economy, Moscow has announced big plans to expand its exports: For hard cash. Unlike the days of the USSR, there are no ‘subsidies’ or friendship prices anymore. Conversely, Pakistan is scrambling for loans from friends and allies to keep another IMF bailout at bay. That in itself raises questions of the prospects of any major defence deals.

Certainly, there have been some significant deals in the past. For instance, Moscow finally agreed to provide Russian engines for the Chinese made JF-17 fighters. This set in place a triangular relationship that sits well with Moscow’s own cosying up to Beijing.

According to Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan, Pakistan is interested in buying air defence systems and the T-90 tanks. The Sukhoi-35 deal, however, is said to be in the “early stages”. That will probably remain so for a while as New Delhi digests this piece of information. The Indian Air Force has reportedly had difficulties operating the Su-30s, and its turn to alternative sources has clearly riled Moscow.

Remember, however, that Russia still remains India’s largest supplier of defence equipment. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia accounts for more than 62 percent of India's total imports. That counts as leverage if New Delhi wants to use it.

The Russian relationship seems brighter on the energy front. Pakistan’s LNG requirements are rising, and there was strong interest from Gazprom in 2017 in this regard. One is through cargo shipments to Karachi: Where there are two import terminals, and also to Port Qasim, where new terminals were completed last year.

Notably, the company involved in setting up the pipeline infrastructure is none other than Fauji Oil Terminal and Distribution Company, a company owned by the Fauji Foundation of the Pakistani Army. The army, therefore, has a vested interest in seeing this project through. A second project that is being pushed is the “North South Gas Pipeline” project, with an intergovernmental deal signed in October 2015.

A series of squabbles on pricing, as well as US sanctions on the executing Russian firm has led to this not yet seeing the light of day. There were reports that China would provide the finance for this project. If this comes through, then it’s another instance of triangular cooperation.

Meanwhile, Russia is also expanding its physical footprint. Last month, a Russian Consulate was opened in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Russian companies have been bidding for deals to open an oil refinery and power stations in the province. Whether this comes through or not, it certainly gives Moscow an entrée into one of the world’s most combustible areas.

A very real cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is in the area of “terrorism”, which is defined broadly by both. After years of backing Indian strategic plans for Afghanistan, Russia overturned its strategy to support the Taliban, allegedly also with weapons supplies. This shift in strategy is ostensibly to prevent the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from establishing its presence close to virtually Russian ‘forward defence’ borders of Tajikistan.

This is assistance Rawalpindi will appreciate. General Bajwa certainly did. As he was was quoted as saying during his visit, Russia's was said to have played a “positive role to help resolve complex situations in the region”. It certainly doesn’t get more complex than in Afghanistan.

To sum up, the Russia-Pakistan relationship is certainly being upgraded, but slowly. This by itself has no great dangers, and ideally, India should not make too much diplomatic noise. Russian overtures to Pakistan will remain dependent on Pakistan’s ability to pay. Besides, a supplier of defence articles to Pakistan over whom New Delhi has some leverage is better than the other — China — over whom it has none at all.

The threat, however, is from the rapid triangular relationship which is developing particularly in the field of defence. Recent meetings between the heads of defence on both sides have stressed this aspect, with Xu Qiliang, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, observing this as the "best period in their history". This is a pas de trois that is as complex as it is transactional. All three partners are likely to watch their steps.

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 17:43:47 IST

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