STRATEGICALLY, Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) is regarded as an important component of Moscow’s foreign policy. President Putin simplified this grand strategic vision as “[being formed] on the basis of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”. Virtually, the five EAEU member states have unanimously supported the idea of pairing the EAEU development and the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt project”. Seeing as how the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of BRI’s flagship projects as described by Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi in November 2019, with $13 billion worth of projects completed in January 2020. In this backdrop, it is an imperative for Moscow-Islamabad strategic engagement in order to fulfil Putin’s vision of bringing the EAEU and BRI closer together to form the GEP.
Since their independence Central Asian States have acquired the attention of regional and global powers in that geographically, this region is landlocked but very rich in natural resources. Pakistan, on the other hand, lacks energy resources and therefore has remained willing to obtain benefits from these states. Importantly, Pakistan and Central Asian States have common history, religion and culture. From geostrategic point of view, Pakistan provides these regional states the shortest route to global sea trade as has been rightly pointed out,’’ “Pakistan provides the natural link between the SCO states to connect the Eurasian heartland with the Arabian Sea and South Asia. We offer the critical overland routes and connectivity for mutually beneficial trade and energy transactions intra-regionally and interregionally”
After the very emergence of the CARs, Islamabad moved actively into Central Asia, but policy makers were clearly divided as to what Pakistan would gain out of Central Asia. While some wanted an Islamic revolution in Central Asia, others wanted open trade links through Afghanistan. The dichotomy of views revealed the limits of Pakistan’s Central Asia Policy. Moreover, during this period, the Central Asian leaders were extremely wary of Pakistan because of its involvement in the Afghan War and its support to the Mujahideen. During the Pakistan-backed Taliban era in Afghanistan, bilateral relations between Pakistan and the Central Asian States touched rock bottom. After Pakistan joined the global war against terrorism as a frontline state, bilateral relations began to be revisited. A number of agreements have been signed covering such areas as trade and tourism, cultural and economic cooperation during these visits. Pakistan has developed institutionalised arrangements for this purpose. Joint Economic Commissions (JECs) have been established with all the Central Asian States. Under a Special Technical Assistance Programme (STAP) initiated in 1992-93, Pakistan provides training facilities, which are fully funded by Islamabad. The programme includes courses ranging from English language, banking and accountancy to diplomacy.
Likewise, Russia has also sought to sustain and expand economic ties with the former Soviet States, starting with the Customs Union Agreement in 1995. That agreement launched a long quest to establish a Russian-dominated trading zone that gradually evolved into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Putin personally took ownership of that project from 2012. His stated goal for the EAEU was to create a Russian-led trading bloc and counterweight to the European Union (EU). In 2013, under Russian pressure, Armenia decided not to sign an already negotiated association agreement with the EU.
Russia continued its efforts to breathe life into the EAEU as it stepped up its military pressure on Ukraine. With the West imposing sanctions and curtailing contacts, it needed a diplomatic win to demonstrate that these efforts to isolate it were failing. The Kremlin thus pushed Belarus and Kazakhstan to sign the EAEU Treaty. After their respective Presidents, Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev, pushed back to strip away any hint at political integration from the draft treaty — including Russian calls for a common parliament, border force, foreign policy and currency — the treaty came into force on 01 January 2015. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined later that same year. It appreciates to be impossible for the Central Asian States to ignore Pakistan because of its unique geostrategic position. For Turkmenistan and southern Uzbekistan, the shortest route to the sea lies through Iran, but for all other states, the shortest route is through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Karachi is the nearest port city for Central Asia and by air Islamabad is closer to Tashkent than it is to Karachi. Dushanbe is only an hour’s flight from Islamabad, and by road through Afghanistan the distance from Dushanbe to Karachi is 2,720 km. In contrast, the port of Bandar Abbas is 3,400 km, Vladivostok 9,500 km and Rostov on the Don 4,200 km away. This makes Pakistan important for the CARs. Despite little success so far, Pakistan is trying to improve its connectivity to the CARs through Afghanistan and China.
In the changing regional and global scenario, Russia and China are the two leading countries, which fit into this category of strategic management trajectory vis-a-vis Pakistan and they each realized in the 1990s and especially over the past couple of years that they would have a lot more to gain by working together than continuing their historical rivalry. Moscow has more military potential in carrying this out, while Beijing relies on the economic element of power in promoting its objectives. These two complementary sides began an unprecedented strategic convergence ever since the US simultaneously threatened their core national security interests in Ukraine and the South China Sea.
The resultant Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership has sought to pool each party’s relevant resources in pushing back against the US and its allies? aggression in the best way that they’re able to, which is evidenced by Moscow’s anti-terrorist intervention in Syria and Beijing’s ambitious globally transformative economic plans. And automatically, by detouring around the Strait of Malacca and correspondingly avoiding the ever more contentious South China Sea, CPEC strategically provides China with its most reliable maritime gateway to the Western half of the Eastern Hemisphere. And not surprisingly, that China will eventually streamline a series of high-speed railroads across mainland Eurasia through Central Asia, Russia and the Mideast in order to connect East Asia with Western Europe and completely eliminate any threat that the US Navy could ever pose to Beijing‘s globally transformative OBOR vision.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.