Major alignments in the making | Talat Masood

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The favourable global and regional environment, along with deft diplomacy, has opened new avenues of cooperation for Pakistan. Recent positive developments in Pakistan-Russian relations are a reflection of the growing confidence in the country by major powers. It is also a manifestation that India’s deliberate efforts at isolating us have not succeeded.

Today, China is Pakistan’s closest ally and the huge investment and involvement of it in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a demonstration of this unfolding reality. Interestingly, it coincides with China’s expanding role in world affairs that owes largely to its fast growing economy and domestic political cohesion. China’s confidence is reflected in its staunch support of globalisation and the flagship role it has undertaken in promoting a green economy. This is in sharp contrast to Trump’s current policy of undercutting globalisation and thwarting measures to reduce global warming.

Pakistan has strong friends among Muslim countries as well. While facing trying regional and internal challenges, Turkey finds Pakistan its most reliable political ally. The two are also working towards enhanced cooperation in defence- and security- related fields. Notwithstanding that major differences in weapon systems stand as an impediment to closer cooperation. Experience has also shown that, despite the best of political relations when it comes to joint production or development, countries find it difficult to collaborate.
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The European Union (EU) is an exception because it is an economic and political union and is presently not facing any external threat. Most European countries despite these advantages prefer to produce as much in the country to provide employment to their people. In case of Pakistan and Turkey, serious efforts should be made to give an impetus to mutual trade and economic relations. Pakistan needs larger investment in fields of infrastructure and industry and could benefit from Turkey’s vast experience in the manufacturing and construction sector.

Former army chief General Raheel Sharif’s appointment to lead the 40-state strong Saudi-sponsored “Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism” is a reflection of the confidence reposed in Pakistan and its armed forces. It is another matter that it has generated controversy due to its political and strategic overtones.

As referred earlier, a new chapter of better relations between Pakistan and Russia seems to be in the offing. It is the most dramatic turnaround since the Cold War when Pakistan was closely aligned with the Americans against the Soviet Union. Several factors seem to have contributed to this encouraging development. Russia has shown interest in joining CPEC and this provides an opportunity for China, Pakistan and Russia to enhance cooperation. For some time now Russia has been showing interest in utilising the Gwadar port to which Pakistan has willingly agreed. Pakistan expects to benefit from Russian investment and technical expertise in the development of the Gwadar port.

It is in mutual interest that Russia becomes an active partner in the CPEC project. Astute observers of the Sino-Russian relations are of the view that Russia’s participation in CPEC and use of Gwadar port would enhance cooperation between the two countries. Already, Russia and China are founding members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and members of BRICs. Pakistan, along with India, has recently become a full member of SCO and Russia’s membership of CPEC should facilitate in bringing these regional countries closer. Russia which has been facing intense pressure from the United States and the West since its annexation of Crimea and break-up of relations with Ukraine, will find this cooperation a counter move against its isolation.

Moreover, Russia realises Pakistan’s pivotal role in the Pak-Afghan theatre and wants to revive its interest in the region. The hosting of the third regional conference on Afghanistan in Moscow with supposedly 12-member countries as invitees is proof of its growing interest. In a way it is challenging the hegemony of the US in the region, especially with reference to Afghanistan. It is a different matter that this would not be easy — considering the significant presence of US troops and its defence assets in Afghanistan. Moscow is seeking help from the Taliban to counter the emerging threat of Da’ish in Afghanistan and the Chechen Republic. And like other regional countries, it is deeply interested in the end of civil war and return of stability in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s military cooperation with Russia is gradually picking up. Last year in September Pakistan’s special forces and Russia held a joint military exercise in northern Pakistan. This occurred despite India’s declared opposition to it.

Pakistan Army Aviation for many years has been using Russian helicopters and, with better understanding between the two countries, it is possible that we will see more induction of these weapons systems. Russian sale of military equipment to India is on the decline as it switches to the US and Western sources for its new acquisitions and ambitious modernisation programme. Moscow is looking for new markets and Pakistan is one.

This, however, does not imply that Russia does not value its relations with India any less than in the past. The same is true for New Delhi. India has widened its options and leaned heavily on the US to maximise its economic and overall strategic capability to counter China, but maintain close relations with Russia.

In an ironic twist of history, Pakistan’s position that peace could return to Afghanistan only if there is political reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government seems vindicated. In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times former US ambassador to Pakistan and later US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Olson, suggested that the Afghan government should seek political settlement with the Taliban. This shows that on Afghanistan convergence is emerging between Pakistan and US thinking and not surprisingly the mantra of “Do more” is gradually subsiding. A balanced and equitable political outcome of the Afghan conflict should contribute significantly in improving Pakistan-US and eventually Pakistan-Afghan relations.

Islamabad is gradually coming out of the woods and must maintain the momentum of building bridges with global and regional powers for internal stability and peaceful borders.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2017.