Pakistan and Russia will hold their first-ever joint military exercises later this year, say media reports. Islamabad is looking for new alliances in the region as its ties with Washington are rapidly deteriorating.
Geo-strategic relations are rapidly changing in South Asia. Former Cold War rivals India and the US are bolstering their defense and trade ties amid growing concerns about China’s assertiveness in the region, particularly in the disputed South China Sea. On the other side, Islamabad and Washington, which were allies against the former Soviet Union and collaborated in the 1980s Afghan War, are drifting away. Simultaneously, Islamabad and Moscow are reviving their ties, as the two Cold War-era foes are planning to hold their first-ever joint military drills later this year.
Around 200 Russian and Pakistani troops will take part in the exercises, The Express Tribune newspaper quoted a senior Pakistani official as saying.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to Moscow Qazi Khalilullah told the newspaper that the joint drills would be called “Friendship-2016,” however he did not divulge any further details.
“This obviously indicates a desire on both sides to broaden defense and military-technical cooperation,” Khalilullah told a Russian news agency last week.
The move comes at a time when US lawmakers are pondering over imposing sanctions on Islamabad for its “lack of cooperation” in the war against Islamist extremists.
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on US-Pakistani relations on Sunday, September 11, in which the committee’s chairman Senator Bob Corker criticized Islamabad’s alleged support to the militants in Afghanistan.
Washington tilts towards New Delhi
While the US-Pakistani ties worsen, Washington gets closer to Islamabad’s archrival New Delhi. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was on a trip to India last month, made it clear that the US wanted to see India in a more powerful role in the South Asian region. Not only is the US moving ahead on a nuclear deal with India, it is also aiming to increase the bilateral trade to around $500 billion (448 billion euros) annually.
“I’m very, very confident that we will continue to strengthen what President Obama has called the defining partnership of the 21st century,” Kerry said in New Delhi, adding that cooperation on trade and security had “room to be able to further grow.”
The US is also actively supporting New Delhi’s bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which has been opposed by India’s archrivals China and Pakistan.
“The US-India security agreements will have an impact on Pakistan. Islamabad is rightly worried. Why should Pakistan then work for the US interests in Afghanistan?” Talat A. Wazarat, an International Relations expert from Karachi, told DW.
“The new strategy is aimed at containing China’s influence, but Pakistan is also bearing the brunt. China, Iran and Russia should also take the US-India deals very seriously and do something about it,” she added.
The changing geopolitics in South Asia has also prompted Pakistan to forge closer ties with its long-time ally China. Beijing is expanding trade and military cooperation with Islamabad keeping in view the New Delhi-Washington maneuvers.
Last year, China announced an economic project in Pakistan worth $46 billion (41 billion euros). With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing aims to expand its influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia in order to counter US and Indian influences. The CPEC would link Pakistan’s southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China’s western Xinjiang region. It also includes plans to create road, rail and oil pipeline links to improve connectivity between China and the Middle East.
The ties between Russia and India are still friendly. Moscow has remained New Delhi’s largest arms supplier over the past three years. The two countries’ relations have blossomed since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister two years ago.
But Russia is skeptical about India’s warming ties with the US and seeks to put pressure on New Delhi by reaching out to Islamabad. Over the last 15 months, several high-ranking Pakistani military officials have travelled to Moscow to boost bilateral ties, which has resulted in the signing of a deal for the sale of four Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters to Islamabad.
Both countries also agreed on a pipeline project intended to transfer liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Karachi to Lahore. It could assist in resolving the Islamic country’s protracted energy crisis.
“Improved ties with Russia augurs well for Pakistan,” Shuakat Qadir, a retired Pakistani military official and defense analyst, told DW. “The US policies have forced Pakistan to look for alternatives. Islamabad is unhappy with the US-India partnership,” he added.
The analyst says that Pakistan has finally come out of the Cold War dynamics as it is not depending on one global power anymore. At the same time, Qadir said, the “closer ties with Beijing and Moscow do not mean that Pakistan should turn its back on Washington.”
“We should engage with all countries,” Qadir underlined.
South Asia bears the brunt
The conflicting interests of the US, China and Russia in Asia and the new strategic formations are spiking tensions in the South Asian region. The Indian-Pakistani ties are at their worst with both neighboring countries accusing each other of sponsoring terrorism.
Since July 8, the Indian part of Kashmir has been in a grip of violence. New Delhi has accused Islamabad of supporting separatist groups in the valley. Pakistan, in turn, has alleged that Indian intelligence agencies have been backing an insurgent movement in its western Balochistan province.
Kerry acknowledged that the deteriorating ties between India and Pakistan were having a negative impact on the security situation in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, where American troops are stationed. But instead of engaging with Pakistani authorities, the top US diplomat chose to be tough with Islamabad.
“It is clear that Pakistan has work to do in order to push harder against its indigenous groups that are engaged in extremist terrorist activities,” Kerry said in an address to students in New Delhi. “They must work with us to help clear the sanctuaries of bad actors who are affecting not only relations between Pakistan and India but also our ability to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he added.
Analyst Shuakat Qadir said that Islamabad would take action against the militants on its own volition. “We are already fighting terrorists. The US needs to review its policies also,” Qadir said.
Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders, analysts say, still consider the Taliban an important strategic ally, who they think should be part of the Afghan government after the NATO pullout. Observers say that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies toppled the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001.
“Kabul is friendlier towards New Delhi now, whereas Islamabad continues to back the Taliban. Pakistan wishes to change this scenario and turn Afghanistan into its political backyard once again,” London-based journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW.
Nonetheless, some experts blame the growing involvement of China, Russia and the US in the South Asian affairs for the worsening state of security in the region. They believe it could trigger new conflicts and plunge the region into a deeper turmoil.