Russia, China and Pakistan: An Emerging New Axis?


In geopolitics, strategic realities can change with surprising speed, and even before countries realize it decisive shifts occur that shape the future for the years to come. That seems to be the case with traditional Cold War rivals Russia and Pakistan, which have of late seen a gradual warming of ties. Traditionally an ally of India and hitherto supportive of India’s stance on Kashmir, Russia has shown clear signs of cozying up to Pakistan.

Having earlier lifted its self-imposed arms embargo on Pakistan, in November 2014 Russia signed a landmark“military cooperation” agreement with Pakistan, which spoke about “exchanging information on politico-military issues, strengthening collaboration in the defense and counter-terrorism sectors, sharing similar views on developments in Afghanistan and doing business with each other.” There have been reports that Pakistan may purchase Mi-35 combat helicopters apart from directly importing the Klimov RD-93 engines from Russiarather than via China for its JF-17 multi-role fighters. This could also mean a significant role for Russian equipment and spares in future development of the fighter. In addition, Russian state-owned firm Rostekh Corporation is planning to build a 680 mile gas pipeline in Pakistan in 2017 at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.

The mutual overtures between Russia and Pakistan are part of a greater shift in international relations. In Europe, Russia is embroiled in a showdown with the West over Ukraine, with Moscow’s military adventure in Crimea being followed by Western sanctions. In the Asia-Pacific, China’s encroachments in the South China Seahas inflamed tensions with other Asia-Pacific countries allied with the U.S. These developments have forced Russia and China to look for allies, which explains the bonhomie between the two powers of late. Some analysts question whether a partnership motivated by external factors could lead to an alliance of countries that formerly distrusted each other. But the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” fits perfectly well here; the single most important factor that overrides all others is their concurrent perception of the U.S. and its “policy of containment” towards them. China needs allies to change the world order and it begins with Asia.

The China-Pakistan link is well known and is the most formidable leg of the Russia-China-Pakistan triangle. China has been a traditional ally of Pakistan and has historically supported it against its arch rival India both in terms of military equipment and diplomacy. Chinese have been involved in building nuclear reactors for Pakistan; Pakistan is the largest importer of Chinese manufactured defense equipment, is involved in co-production and co-development of JF-17 fighter jets and now is slated to buy almost eight Chinese’s S20 or Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines (SSK). China has also significantly invested in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and in the Karakoram corridor. The imperative here is not just for China but for Pakistan as well. The burgeoning relationship between the U.S. and India, with their extensive trade ties and cooperation on strategic issues of mutual concern in the sphere of defense technology and equipment, does unnerve Pakistan from time to time. Since Pakistan’s failed misadventure in the Kargil heights, it has lost the support of successive U.S. administrations on the Kashmir issue and its own relationship with the U.S. has been rocky.

It is from here that the congruence of interests between the three states of Pakistan, China and Russia stems. For China and Russia, the U.S. is an anathema, which must dethroned from its hegemonic position for their own security. Pakistan has enough of an incentive to be a willing partner in an Asian security architecture that is shaped by China. With India having diversified its military suppliers to include countries like the U.S. and Israel, Russia no longer sees any impediment to establishing a strategic relationship with Pakistan. In the future one could see signs of integration between the three states, as their abilities complement each other: Russia is an alternate source for Western military technology and energy supplier, China is economically more potent than the other two, with considerable foreign exchange reserves looking to invest and in need of energy supplies, Pakistan despite its structural problems is a growing economy with young population in need of both of both energy supplies and defense equipment. Already importing equipment from China, Pakistan will have access to Russian technology, which was in fact the source for many Chinese products as well. Sanctions-hit Russia will have a new market for its defense equipment, although this may well in the future see some competition between Russia and China. It is possible that Russia will continue to arm India along with China and now Pakistan. Both EU and US have followed the strategy of supplying defense equipment to both India and Pakistan. But Russia arming Pakistan is still significant because that implies that Russia will no longer give preferential treatment to its historical friend India.

It is true India is still economically too big to be overlooked and Russia has an interest in preserving its relationship with India. But India has estranged security ties with China and Pakistan, and with Russia drawing ever closer to China, its divergence of interest with India in the world order it perceives is growing more apparent. The Russia-Pakistan-China triumvirate is a reality in the offing and has a far greater convergence of security objectives in Asia than a similar Russia-China-India grouping (also subsumed within BRICS). It is important to note here that the Chinese economy is visibly slowing and this could lead to some internal turmoil, the Russian economy may very well see further contraction, while that of Pakistan, albeit showing signs of improvement, is external aid dependent and beset by internal security concerns. Aggression on the part of this triumvirate to deflect attention from internal problems cannot be ruled out. The strategic ramifications will be for India as much as they will be the U.S. and other countries in the region. As the contours of the alliances in Asia harden, India will have to shed its reluctance to take a firmer stand in Asia and work more closely with the U.S. and Japan.

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