New Opportunities In South Asia

On 24th September, Cherat played host to the first joint military exercise between Russia and Pakistan. This development is symbolic of a rapprochement between the two countries, which can be traced back to June 2014 when Russia lifted the embargo on supplying arms to Pakistan. Despite Russia’s reassurances, this rapprochement is bound to affect its relations with India and shall have consequences in South Asia as well as the wider world.

For decades, politics in South Asia has been influenced by the hostile relations between India and Pakistan. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s alliance with India found it opposing Pakistan; whereas Pakistan was closer to the United States. After the Sino-Soviet split, South Asia witnessed an alliance between the United States, Pakistan and China, which was at loggerheads with the Indo-Soviet alliance. This equation came into play at important junctures like the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Relations between the Soviet Union and Pakistan dropped to a historic low when the latter supported and trained the Anti-Soviet Mujahideen during the War in Afghanistan.

After the Cold War, Russia continued strategic cooperation with India by supporting India’s positions on crucial issues like Kashmir, terrorism, nuclear cooperation, defense manufacturing etc.; and for a long time remained India’s largest defense supplier. As a result, Russia’s relations with Pakistan soured. In Afghanistan, the two countries found themselves on opposite sides of another bitter divide. While Pakistan extended support to the Taliban, Russia along with India backed the Northern Alliance. In 2010, Vladimir Putin declared, “Unlike many other countries, Russia does not have any military cooperation with Pakistan because we bear in mind the concerns of our Indian friends.” However six years later, things have changed. Perhaps South Asia is witnessing a realignment.

The Russo-Pakistan rapprochement is a response to the growing closeness between India and the United States in trade and cooperation against terrorism. It is also a result of unanimous concerns over the South China Sea dispute. However, the biggest change has been in defense cooperation. The two militaries signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in addition to exercising jointly. The LEMOA allows each to use the other’s military bases for logistics. The US has also replaced Russia as India’s largest defense supplier. In the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “Defense purchases have moved from almost zero to $10 billion in less than a decade.”

Losing a defense market in India and facing isolation from the West due to the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea has spurred Russia to compensate by strengthening ties with Pakistan. The breakdown of talks between the United States and Russia over the Syrian Civil War has pushed Russia towards China, a country historically sympathetic to Pakistan’s cause.

Vladimir Putin pictured with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015. (RIA Novosti)

Vladimir Putin pictured with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015. (RIA Novosti)

While Pakistan once enjoyed strong relations with the US during the George W. Bush administration, relations soured in January 2011 when the Raymond Davis incident led to massive protests against the US in Pakistan. This was followed by the covert operation in Pakistan to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. Pakistan was not informed about the operation, raising questions as to whether Bin Laden received support from within the Pakistani establishment.

Declining relations with the US and the US’s strong new bonds with India have prompted Pakistan to reaffirm its ties with China. The increasing closeness can be seen in cooperative military exercises and economic projects like the CPEC. These developments, in the context of a rapprochement between Pakistan and Russia, could lead to a realignment in South Asia. The region could potentially witness a clash between the two coalitions.

The root of the situation rests with the ties between Russia and China. Russia and China have often pooled efforts to counter American influence and Russia has embraced this relationship in the wake of its differences with the US, along with its increasing isolation and a falling economy due to Western sanctions. However the mere convenience of opposition to the US will not be able to hold them together for too long.

Relations between Russia and China are also fraught with subtle and implicit rivalry. Tensions revolve around many issues. Russia is suspicious of China’s intentions in the Russian Far East. While China is the world’s most populated country, the Russian Far East is one of the world’s most sparsely populated regions. Tension comes from an illegal migration of Chinese people into the region. According to a report in ABC News, Russia’s interior ministry claims that 2 million Chinese are living in their lands and many fear that the Chinese might become the ethnically dominant group in the next 20 to 30 years. The influx of Chinese people along with China’s growing economic and military power might allow them to stake a territorial claim over parts of the region; especially the part that was ceded to Russia in the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, one of the much resented ‘unequal treaties.’

While Russia and China could be headed towards an impending border dispute; there are other factors hindering a long term strategic alliance. Russia and China are also directly engaged in a tussle for economic and political supremacy over the Central Asian countries. Russia fighting to retain dominance in its ‘Near Abroad’ and China trying to establish its own.

Russia has looked for new economic partners and has tried to improve its economic and diplomatic ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations and Japan – nations which have been opposing China.

The rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan thus has to be seen in the larger context of the global world. Sale of military equipment and joint exercises might lead to short term benefits for Russia, however a long term alliance with Pakistan increases Moscow’s dependency on Beijing.

This would prevent Russia from pursuing an independent foreign policy, making it almost subservient to Chinese interests and also severely weaken Russia’s bargaining power over any dispute with China – for instance in the Russian Far East. An alliance with Pakistan will also alienate India, which has been Russia’s long term partner and the two countries have deep links in military, energy and other important sectors. India is a much larger economy than Pakistan and can be a stronger partner. As the world’s largest weapons importer, India is also a larger market for defense equipment. India also stands to benefit from close ties with Russia. Lately, Indian foreign policy has been aligned towards the United States. However there are also arenas where the two countries have divergent interests.

In Afghanistan, India and the US seem to cooperate on the surface in order to achieve development and stability in the Afghan state. However for the US, stability is rooted around the idea of an Afghan state that does not need the US military for protection which would allow the US to end its military engagement in the country for which end it is willing to negotiate with the Taliban in the peace process. The Indian approach in this regard is very different. For India, the stability of the Afghan state is a key factor in ensuring that the territory of Afghanistan is not used as a safe haven for terrorists launching attacks in India. Indian policy is centered around containing Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. In New Delhi’s view, anti-India terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, etc. have deep links with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, that run through, the oft accused organs of the Pakistani state – the Army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) – a relationship that was seen at work during the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814. Thus, India would be deeply suspicious of any involvement of the Taliban in the Afghan peace process. US and India, therefore have very different visions about peace in Afghanistan.

India and US also have different interests in areas like nuclear disarmament, and global environmental policy like cutting carbon emissions. The two countries often find each other on opposite sides of disputes in the WTO, especially on the issue of agricultural subsidies. In this context, a close relationship with Russia could be useful to India as a means to pursue its own interests. Moreover, a close relationship with both countries could be advantageous as a bridge between the two rivals. Given the unanimous suspicions regarding Chinese designs, India could potentially play a key role in a historic rapprochement that is reminiscent of the Sino-American rapprochement in the 1970s.

India’s current position affords it an historic opportunity. A potential turnaround in Russo-American relations could allow India to greatly advance its own interests in South Asia. However, the opportunity might be slipping. Whereas statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS Summit in Goa, India, and the accompanying agreements signed by India and Russia might reassure New Delhi; Russia’s increasing ties with Pakistan can’t be ignored. As Russia moves closer towards Pakistan and China, India is losing an opportunity to aggressively pursue its interests in South Asia and play a larger role in shaping world events.

Dhananjay Sahai is a graduate in History from Delhi University. His interest areas include politics, security and conflict resolution.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the CSA BUSINESS.