Pakistan-China-Russia: An Emerging Bloc?

Pakistan-China-Russia: An Emerging Bloc? March 20, 2017

Relations among Pakistan, China, and Russia are growing. Regional developments, uncertain U.S. policy, and Afghanistan’s ongoing challenges increase the possibility of convergence among these three regional states.

On March 20, 2017, INDUS – Mobilizing People’s Power, in coordination with the Woodrow Wilson Center, organized an important discussion on geopolitics in the heart of Eurasia. Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia, moderated a discussion by regional experts on recent developments and what might be take place in the future.

Speaking first, Arif Rafiq, President, Vizier Consulting, LLC, explained the recent era of Pakistan-U.S. relations, citing the Raymond Davis and Salala incidents and the Osama Bin Laden operation as harmful to the relationship and producing a consensus within the civil-military leadership in Islamabad that Pakistan needed to diversify its foreign relations and reduce its dependence on the United States. Pakistan began looking for other partners.

With China’s encouragement, Islamabad extended an opening to Russia and other neighboring states like Iran. The Pakistan-Russia relationship is developing. Late last year, the two countries held their first joint military exercises in Pakistan, and Pakistan will receive four Russian-made Mi-35M attack helicopters later this year. Earlier, in 2014, Moscow ended its decades-old arms embargo on Islamabad, and by 2015, there were signs of a convergence in Russo-Pakistan views on Afghanistan along with rumors of Russian talks with the Taliban. In 2016, these were formally acknowledged. (Afghan officials alleged that Russia was supplying or even training the Afghan Taliban.) Most recently, Moscow hosted talks with Beijing and Islamabad on the future of Afghanistan. The United States did not participate.

The realignment of Pakistan’s international relationships, according to Rafiq, suggests the following: a) the U.S. is limited in its ability to generate behavioral change in Pakistan; b) the U.S. underestimated Pakistan’s ability to engage diplomatically; c) the Taliban are a reality and only reconciliation among all the Afghans can bring a durable peace to the country; and d) there is no solution to the conflict in Afghanistan without involving regional states.

Andrew Small, Senior Trans-Atlantic Fellow, Asia Program, The German Marshall Fund, stated that the China-Pakistan relationship has continued to grow while, at the same time, shifting from its historical focus on security issues to include a larger economic component, evidenced by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Driving China’s new approach is, firstly, its intensifying strategic competition with the United States. Pakistan, a country short of alliances, serves as a willing partner. Small noted that the Sino-Russian relationship, albeit at a lesser level, is also on a positive and friendly long-term trajectory. Second, China is also concerned about instability in Xinjiang, its northwestern province, and believes that development there, and regionally, will engender greater stability for itself and its neighbors. Beijing is also pursuing this through security cooperation with other actors in the region. Third, China sees the U.S.-India relationship as much more of a settled strategic fact and, relatedly, an opportunity arising from the weakened U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Fourth, risks to China’s economy have necessitated the push to find markets and investment opportunities abroad, and CPEC has ended up as a flagship project for both countries. As a result, China is helping Pakistan move closer to Russia and has helped facilitate their relationship. Beijing has also encouraged other states to support Pakistan and is in favor of a close Pakistan-U.S. relationship.

China is also expanding its security relationship with Russia, and with Russia’s blessing, China is helping Pakistan access Central Asian states. Regarding a Russian role in CPEC, Small said the critical element is not if the Russian role is formalized; what matters most is whether Russia is helping build ports and pipelines that support Pakistan’s energy needs.

Small maintained that South Asia is not an area of competition between the U.S. and China; it is an area of convergence. Both encourage support for Pakistan in various aspects: China backs the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and the U.S. encourages Chinese investment in Pakistan. There is also convergence on Afghanistan. Both China and the U.S. would have a central role in peace building in Afghanistan. It is presented differently in public, however, and many people may not believe the U.S. supports CPEC, but this is an area where U.S. and Chinese intelligence agencies have worked with Pakistan in the 1980s. There is also convergence in the U.S. and China in promoting a peace process between Pakistan and India. Nor has the Pakistan-China-Russia relationship crossed the threshold of a significant trilateral grouping. However, if the U.S.-China relationship becomes more competitive, South Asia is a region where that might take place.

Andrew Kuchins, Senior Fellow, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University, argued that a lot has changed in regional relations over the last 25 years, illustrating how dynamic geopolitics and geo-economics are today in the Eurasian heartland.

Regarding the U.S.-Russian relationship, Kuchins pointed to a public interview with Zamir Kabulov, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Russian government with significant experience in Afghanistan. Kabulov revealed in his interview that Russia is talking to the Taliban, which Kuchins said represented a big change in Russian rhetoric about Afghanistan. Kubulov stated to the interviewer that, “We expect Donald Trump to tailor a new American approach to Afghanistan” that considers Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and others. He also railed against U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, saying, “We know the reasons for the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Russia will not tolerate this.”

Kuchins believes that Russia wants to be in the Afghan political game, and the change in the Russia-Pakistan relationship advances that goal. The ties may also be driven by closer U.S.-Indian relations, but, according to Kuchins, Russian arms sales to Pakistan are not a direct result, as Russia sells arms frequently. Russia refused Indian requests that it cancel its joint military training with Pakistan. In return, according to Kuchins, Pakistan offered Russia use of Gwadar Port, but Russia was not interested because Balochistan is unstable and the port is underdeveloped. Kuchins believes Russia will be careful about its investments and trade with Pakistan as not to alienate India or China, the two largest purchasers of Russian arms over the last two decades.

As far as U.S. policy, Kuchins concluded that the Trump administration does not have an Afghanistan policy. Nor does it have a policy toward Russia.

The event concluded with questions from the audience and a moderated discussion. More information and a video recording are available here.

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