Pakistan Region

The bear rising again?

By Farooq Yousaf*

Ongoing tensions with the US and changing geo-politics have encouraged Pakistan to look for new partnerships and alliances. Hence, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif – who recently concluded a three day visit to Russia and signed a number of bilateral deals and MoUs – claimed that his government’s effective foreign policy has helped in furthering fruitful ties with Moscow.

Whether or not his claims hold weight, this renewed partnership between both the countries holds key for regional peace and stability for two major reasons:

First, with USA hell-bent on using only force in Afghanistan, Russia has opened up channels for dialogue with the Taliban. This is because Moscow fears that the growing threat of ISIS-Khorasan could spill-over to Central Asia, which could directly affect Russian security. Also, both Russia and Pakistan are part of a new regional bloc which also includes Turkey, China and, to some extent, Iran which differs from the Indo-Afghan-American bloc on how to deal with the Taliban. Where the former considers the militant group as a possible line of defence against the growing threat of ISIS, the latter considers it a terrorist organisation leaving no room for talks or reconciliation.

Second, Russia believes that Pakistan still has a vital role to play when it comes to peace in the region; and with both the US and Pakistan experiencing tumultuous ties, Russia presents the latter with a new option for an effective regional partner and ally.

Who would have thought that after almost three decades of Soviet disintegration and Pakistan’s active role in the former’s defeat in Afghanistan, both the countries’ foreign ministers would be warmly embracing each other in Moscow?

Eyebrows in the western media were raised when a Russian military contingent was given a private tour of FATA – a no-go zone for the local media – in 2017, which was followed by Russian language signs erected in the region. Both the countries have also conducted successful joint military exercises that started in 2016. After Asif’s recent visit, both the countries agreed on continuing the military exercises along with defense cooperation.

“One of the key areas of cooperation is the fight against terrorism. Russia will continue its practical assistance in bolstering Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capabilities, including by supplying military equipment,” the Russian foreign ministry recently said in a statement.

Moreover, as the US influence is apparently waning in Afghanistan – and hence in the region – Moscow is wasting no time in establishing quick and effective military, diplomatic and economic ties with Pakistan. Marking this ‘new beginning’ of bilateral ties, Russia also appointed its honorary consul general for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Peshawar last month.

Pakistan’s new eastward outlook was confirmed by Asif in a recent statement when he said that his government now aims to correct the 70 year imbalance of totally tilting towards the West. Now, with changing geopolitics, Islamabad, according to Asif, aims to forge closer ties with its regional partners.

However, Pakistan also needs to tread carefully while dealing with Russia. Where Pakistan might enter this new relationship solely because USA is tilted towards India, Islamabad must also acknowledge that Moscow enjoys strong ties with New Delhi as well. Also, putting all its eggs in one basket (formerly USA, and currently China) has not gone well historically for Pakistan. Therefore, a complete cut-off from the West might look good on paper, but not in theory.

USA is still Pakistan’s major trade partner, whereas the former also provides one of the biggest sources of foreign remittances for Pakistan – with the number touching $2 Billion in the last financial year. Additionally, Pakistan’s fate of not being a declared a terror-sponsor still rests with the Trump administration. Islamabad’s embarrassing failure at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting and its addition to the grey-list also suggests that whether or not the country enjoys effective ties with both Russia and China, it still has to ‘do-more’ to convince its friends of its counter-terror efforts.

Pakistan’s advances towards the East, especially with Russia, signal a major paradigm shift in the country’s foreign policy. Where on one hand such a policy reduces Islamabad’s dependence on Washington, on the other hand, it also helps the country in venturing into new regional and closer territories. However, such paradigm shifts should be calculated and based on reason rather than mere rhetoric or an anti-US/West sentiment.

*The author is a research consultant at CRSS currently pursuing his PhD in Politics in Australia.

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