Russia-China Scuttles India

Russian invitation to Pakistan’s foreign secretary in trilateral meeting featuring China too has rattled New Delhi as it may destabilize Indian bid to isolate Islamabad in global polity

By Mridu Kumari

India is deeply worried about growing proximity between Russia and Pakistan, which experts feel would impinge on India’s attempt to diplomatically isolate Islamabad on the issue of terrorism. Though New Delhi’s official stand is that it would not comment on any third country’s relations, yet there lies uneasiness in the diplomatic camp over closing of ranks between Moscow and India’s foe, Islamabad. Instead of addressing the concern, Russia on its part is rather increasing the tempo of its move that could unsettle India. A few days back Moscow invited Pakistan Foreign Secretary, Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary for a trilateral meeting with China. Even as this meet was called to discuss regional issues, including peace progress in Afghanistan, it clearly indicated that Russia was gravitating towards Pakistan to play a new strategic game in the South Asian region. This became more apparent after several reports quoting Afghan intelligence and defense officials, maintained that Russian officials and Taliban leaders held series of meetings in Moscow and Tajikistan in recent months.

To this came the bang when Kabul-based Russian ambassador Alexander Mantyskiya while addressing the Upper House of the Afghan Parliament recently said: Zamir Kabulov (Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan) said our interests are the same as Taliban in fighting IS terror outfit.” Kabulov, a former KGB officer, is well known to Taliban as it was he who had negotiated with this banned outfit leaders in the mid-1990s after the group had hijacked a Russian plane and took seven Russians hostage. But then in respect to Taliban, India’s stand is clear: “They have to respect the internationally agreed redlines. They have to give up terrorism and violence, sever all ties with al-Qaeda, agree to follow democratic norms and not do anything which will erode the gains of the last 15 years in Afghanistan.”

At the Heart of Asia summit in Amritsar, as India and Afghanistan attacked Pakistan for nurturing terrorism and fomenting trouble in the neighborhood, Kabulov, the Russian representative at the summit, triggered a controversy by saying that platform like Heart of Asia summit should not be used by India and Pakistan for scoring points. It was an unusual statement from all-weather friend like Russia. Even as India would take notice of it, Russia and Pakistan held their first ever foreign office consultations in Islamabad on December 14. Going by what Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, the two sides discussed a wide range of regional issues and key areas of mutual interest including economic cooperation and connectivity.

“The two sides exchanged views on important global and regional developments,” the Pakistan Foreign Affairs statement maintained, adding that “the next round of consultations will be convened in Moscow in 2017.” These swift developments, taking place in the background of first ever Russia-Pakistan joint military exercise in October, have increased the levels of concern in New Delhi and the country’s strategic community. However, Moscow has denied that Pakistan-based Russian Ambassador Alexey Dedov ever talked about merging the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Russian embassy in Pakistan also issued a clarification saying that the Russian Ambassador in his interview to Radio Pakistan talked about “merging the EAEU with Chinese project of the Silk Road Economic-that was under discussion. Recognizing the importance of the CPEC Project for the Pakistan economy and regional connectivity, the Ambassador made it clear that Russia doesn’t participate in it being engaged in realization of its own large scale bilateral project with Pakistan-that of “North-South” gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore.”

Amid this, however, Russian special envoy Kabulov’s reaction on India’s concern on rising Russian cooperation with Pakistan can’t be termed as facile and simplistic. In response to a question on growing proximity between Moscow and Islamabad, he said: “India has very close cooperation with America in the field (defense) that we used to be the almost only trusted partner. Have you heard (of) any complaints from Moscow about that?  So, let’s look to the world as it is. We are living in a multi-polar world.”  While making such statement, the Russian envoy appears to have forgotten that India’s cooperation with the US is not a threat to Moscow, whereas Russia’s defense cooperation or sales of equipment to Pakistan is a direct threat to Indian interests.

Yet for New Delhi, these developments are not a welcome sign; all-weather friend Russia has begun to change its strategic contours at a time when New Delhi is taking major diplomatic steps to isolate Pakistan for perpetrating terrorism in India. Experts say that in the 1990s too, Russia had tried to take its overture towards Pakistan after the then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visited Moscow. But thanks to India’s persuasion, Russia saw danger in playing its South Asia gamble. Once again, however, contact was established between the two when in June 2015, Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif visited Moscow.

Since then Russia has lost no opportunity to wax its relations with Pakistan, seen by experts as Moscow’s countermeasure to India-US proximity. Therefore, apart from providing defense equipment, it has offered to refurbish Pakistan’s steel plan as well as build a pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. For New Delhi, its diplomatic acumen is under the test. US President elect Donald Trump’s love for Russian President Vladimir Putin seems perplexing for the members of Indian diplomatic community. So that they could not be found wrong in understanding the direction of fast changing geo-political situation of the world, Indian diplomats prefer to wait and watch than jump the gun and jeopardize the country’s interests. For the sake of whimsical Trump, it would be foolhardy to burn bridges with long-lasting relationship with Russia, whose closest rival America has though codified India as a “Major Defense Partner”, a distinctly unique definition the US doesn’t use for any country.

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