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Is there a Russia-China-Pakistan axis forming?
"For the first time, and only from Indians, do I listen about a Russia-Pakistan-China axis."
Rather a funny thing for Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy advisor, Sergei Karaganov to say, when the suspected axis has been the subject of much analysis and speculation, from Pakistan to Russia itself to the pages of well-reputed international publications.
Of course, when I mention this 'axis', he is quick to point out that 'axis' is the incorrect term, the word I'm looking for is 'trilateral'.
Point taken, Mr Karaganov.
Nevertheless, a Russia-China-Pakistan strategic alliance has been talked about, not just by Indians, and not without reason.
With the US beating a hasty diplomatic retreat – first backing out of the TPP, then the Paris Climate Accord, then the Iran nuclear deal – strategic impetus and alliances around the world are shifting like quicksand.
Now, India and Russia have historically had strong ties dating back to the Cold War, but the relationship has been on the backburner of late; something India is currently trying to rectify, with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's Moscow visit in April 2018 and India's top bureaucrat NSA Ajit Doval visiting a month later.
In a climate of strategic uncertainty and a China elbowing its way into India’s backyard on many fronts – Nepal, the Maldives, Mauritius – Russia’s stance and burgeoning global role takes on new significance.
Russia and Pakistan's Fledgling Courtship
Pakistan's relationship with the United States has taken a nosedive. An erstwhile benefactor, the US' new President Donald Trump has struck a confrontational tone with what he perceives to be an 'ungrateful' Pakistan. And Pakistan has retaliated, sinking further into China's embrace, and reaching a hand out to Russia too.
In 2014, Russia and Pakistan signed a military cooperation agreement. In 2016, they held their very first joint military drills to counter terrorism and drug trafficking, called Druzhbha ('Friendship') in Cherat, Pakistan. In April 2017, they held the two-week Druzhbha 2017 in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia.
And April 2018 saw Pakistan's National Security Advisor Lt Gen (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua visiting his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patruschev in Moscow, the same month Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited.
Deepening their military and security cooperation, Pakistan is now in direct talks with Russia to buy a range of sophisticated weapons systems; air defence systems, fighter jets, and military tanks, which would have obvious implications for India in the event of an Indo-Pak war.
Russian Bear-Hug of the Chinese Dragon
In spite of allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the US elections, Russia and China have been showing a united front in the face of US 'hostility' in the South China Sea.
From "commonly strengthening each other's deterrence capacity", as Karaganov puts it, through joint naval drills in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, to voting together at the UN against the US' airstrikes in Syria, the bear and the dragon are in tandem.
And Russia and China are on the same page on a great number of issues of relevance to India – the militarisation of the disputed South China Sea in India's backyard, the direction of negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan right next door, and China's OBOR initiative, including the CPEC that runs through disputed territory India claims as its own.
Russia in the South China Sea
Karaganov is firmly in China's corner, saying that because Russia and China are 'almost allies', it would "look benevolently" even if China were to do something "wrong". With regard to China's island-building in disputed territory within the South China Sea, for example, Karaganov says:
Unlike other huge powers, we [Russia] are not interested in fueling tensions between countries. With regard to oil and gas and fish resources, that should be sorted out by the nations involved [...] If you were to ask us, we would come as a ‘not interested observer’.Sergei Karaganov, foreign policy advisor to Vladimir Putin
What Karaganov leaves unsaid, however, is that it’s not just about oil or gas or fish (though it is about all those things), it's also about crucial sea-lanes and trade routes.
About 30 percent of global maritime trade flows through the the South China Sea – wresting control over the disputed territory these routes pass through, according to India and its allies, amounts to a threat to the freedom of navigation of other nations that utilise these for trade.
But Karaganov, for his part, appears more interested in RIC – the Russia-India-China trilateral – than in any Russia-China-Pakistan grouping, suggesting that Russia and India work together to deal with the war in Syria.
We will have to deal with this, you, India will have to deal with this. [...] We should do it together. And together with China, in spite of your current tensions. We are philosophical, you will overcome them.Sergei Karaganov, foreign policy advisor to Vladimir Putin
Now there's a thought!
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