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Is There A Russia-China-Pakistan Axis In The Making?

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  • September 30, 2016

    The world order seems to be on the cusp of a major transformation. A potential power realignment seems to slowly shaping up with a hitherto unlikely combination (at least partly) of Russia, China and Pakistan, seeking to challenge the great power status quo, or pushing for greater bipolarity in global affairs. While the Asia-Pacific region is already witness to contestations and competition between the US and China in their efforts to attain ascendancy over an expanded theatre, often termed as the Indo-Pacific, some events of the past few weeks may not just prove to be game-changer for these equations, but also may open up a new power re-balancing in this region.

    First is the Russian support to the Chinese claim over the South China Sea (SCS) and its rejection of the international tribunal's verdict, as also the decision to initiate joint naval exercises in the disputed sea. Second is Moscow's decision to undertake its first-ever military exercises with Pakistan, at a time when the latter is being internationally censured for promoting cross-border terrorism. While the Russia-China channel of strategic cooperation has long existed thanks to their ideological lineage, and a common objective of countering US influence in their peripheries, Moscow has for many years been largely been playing second fiddle to this consortium intended to resist American hegemony. The entry of Pakistan in this matrix could imply the unravelling of a Cold War-era permutation.

    On the other hand, if the apparent motives behind the Russian moves could be dissected, it seems more likely that Moscow not just intends a re-balancing in the region, but also wants to create space for its own elevation to the centre-stage. Going by the current trends, the Russian grand strategy seems not just to continue countering the US primacy but also displacing China as the primary countervailing force in this region, even while ensuring China incurs the costs of resisting the American influx. This game-plan fits into Putin's own pivot involving an assortment of direct intervention (Ukraine and Syria), passive engagement (Iran and Pakistan) and crisis profiteering (SCS, Turkey, ISIS) as means to expand the Russian sphere of influence across Eurasia.

    Moreover, conditions are ripe to serve this manoeuvring. First, the election season in US and its peculiar political intricacies has thrown up a sense of incertitude on the future direction of US foreign policy, especially the Asia Pivot. While the presidential candidates are yet to articulate their visions on many of these aspects, that even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are opposed to President Obama's projects (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP) only adds to the uncertainty. Second, Beijing's belligerence on the SCS dispute, its rejection of the tribunal's verdict, and the economic slowdown China is currently facing has undermined its international standing, which Moscow seems inclined to exploit.

    Pakistan stands to gain

    The defining factor, though, is the new and unprecedented channel of engagement that Russia has opened with Pakistan. For a country that was once part of key American alliances—SEATO and CENTO— to halt the advance of Soviet communism, and a major Non-NATO ally even after 9/11, the last few years have been a struggle for identity and legitimacy after Washington's realization that Pakistan will be its Achilles heel. Convinced that its South Asian ally is playing a dual game—of taking counter-terror aid and mentoring terrorist groups—the eventual finding of Osama bin Laden near a military installation in Abbottabad virtually killed this alliance. With few backers in the Western and Islamic worlds, and China remaining the only all-weather friend to carry some of its weight, the Russian entry into its calculus is an indisputable strategic gain for Pakistan.

    Unlike the Americans who sermonize to oriental allies on everything from democracy to religious freedom, the Russians ignore international opinion and pursue their strategic objectives without obeisance to the norms perpetuated by Western liberal democracies. This is obvious in its decision to continue the military drill with Pakistan despite the Uri terror attack—never mind the impropriety of exercising anti-terror practices with a country that is seen to be hub of global terrorism. For a state which is increasingly attaining pariah status, Pakistan could easily sync with these non-liberal attributes and conspire against the "enemy" West.

    Moscow puts Delhi on notice

    It's true that India has taken its all-weather ally for granted. For more than a decade, Moscow has been patiently watching from the sidelines as Delhi inched closer to Washington. Though Russia played along by supporting the US agenda to get India into the non-proliferation mainstream, through the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver, and silently taking a smaller pie (Haripur nuclear project) in the nuclear energy expansion orchestrated by US, the equations started to apparently change when the burgeoning India-US relations began to hit Russia where it hurts the most.

    Since the 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty, Moscow has been India's largest and most reliable defence partner for over four decades. Though the fall of the Soviet Union had troubled the Indian armed forces with a scarcity of spares and an antiquated arsenal, Russia continued to remain India's trustworthy source of military equipment, despite new entrants such as Israel taking a chunk. Things seem to have dramatically changed in the last few years as American defence companies have begun to make a huge windfall through direct purchases under Foreign Military Sales (FMS)—they are destined to overtake Russian companies. While a few remnants of the legacy – BrahMos, INS Vikramaditya and Fifth Generation Fighter (FGF) – remain as symbols of this relationship, Russia is aware of how the Indian defence market is soon to be ruled by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Even in the nuclear zone, Moscow could have been taken aback by the benevolence shown to Westinghouse on the Kovvada nuclear site which the Russians had eyed as an alternative to Haripur.

    On the other hand, there are sufficient signs of India being increasingly drawn into the US strategic ambit. Besides the increasing dependence on the US on a range of strategic domains—from nuclear, defence, space and high-end technology—India has now crossed a critical frontier by signing strategic agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). While many observers treat this as a virtual military alliance, to China such actions embody India beginning to play the "hedging" role against it for Washington. To Moscow, this might be signal that the time-tested friendship is ripe for review. Despite being its arch-rival, New Delhi seeks all opportunities to engage Beijing and address issues of divergence. Unfortunately, it may have fewer options to soothe the disgruntled Russians, for whom a smaller slice may no longer suffice. While Russia heeded India's opposition when it opened initial channels with Islamabad in the last decade, its decision to go ahead with the exercises, in spite of Uri, indicates the diminishing leverage Delhi has with Moscow.

    A wake-up call for India

    The military exercises with Russia and the purported Chinese declaration of support in the event of hostilities with India are shots in the arm for Pakistan at a time when it faces international isolation. With the US no longer on its side, Pakistan stands to tremendously gain by promoting greater interactions within this axis. Therefore, it might not be surprising if Russia is soon invited to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a means for Pakistan to countenance India's economic might. In many ways, the Pakistan-Russia rapprochement and their common bonding with China echoes Liaquat Ali Khan's oft-quoted statement of 1949 that "Pakistan cannot afford to wait. She must take her friends where she finds them." The statement, intended at appeasing Moscow, was then a reflection of Pakistan's resentment about Washington's favoured treatment of Jawaharlal Nehru. Things seem to have turned a full circle as Pakistan confronts a similar strategic calling.

    Though Russia and Pakistan are exploring greater avenues for engagement, China will prove to be the lynchpin in building this matrix into a formidable platform challenging American writ in the region. Needless to say, these developments are a wake-up call to India on the need to reorient its great power relationships. India's effused confidence in striking an effective balance between Moscow and Washington seems to have seriously eroded. Having ignored these warnings for long, New Delhi needs to invoke new meaning in its relationship with Moscow.

    The article was originally published in The Huffington Post