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Saqib Akbar

From 2014 onwards there were indications of change in Pakistan’s foreign policy and with the passage of time this shift is becoming visible. The contours of new foreign policy have started to emerge. On June 30, 2017, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting held in the Foreign Office for reviewing the foreign policy. Although more details of this meeting are not known, however, what has come to light that too is very useful to understand the situation. The PM was given detailed briefing on foreign policy priorities and he was also informed about the new emerging scenarios at the global and regional level. In this regard, according the statement released by PM’s media office, the PM expressed his satisfaction over the status of strategic partnership with China and the launch of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, reviving the strategic dialogue with the US, strong ties with Russia, major improvement in relations with Central Asia culminating with Pakistan’s full membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

 Giving her presentation on the occasion, the Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua dwelled on the challenges Pakistan was facing in key areas including Afghanistan, India and the US. She also briefed the prime minister on the recent developments in the Middle East. The PM underscored the importance of securing peace and stability in the region through sustained dialogue and the importance Pakistan attached to its continued partnership with the US.

 On the other hand, the United States has also informed Pakistan that it is closely reviewing its foreign policy about Islamabad. During a Congressional hearing in Washington, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “We are beginning an inter-agency policy towards Pakistan”. Appearing before the House-Foreign Relations Committee, he said the continuation of US aid to Pakistan was going to be one of the considerations. He was responding to a question asked by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher as to why the US continues to provide financial assistance to Pakistan. Responding to the objections raised by members of the Congress, the Secretary of State said, “Our relationship with Pakistan is very complex, but your concerns are all well founded.” Rohrabacher also raised the issue of Dr Shakeel Afridi, who he said helped the US capture and kill Osama bin Laden. He also blamed Pakistan for the US shortcomings in Afghanistan and said, “If we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, it will be because of the ISI in Pakistan.” Another Congressman Ted Poe said that the US gave money to Pakistan and that money ended up in the hands of bad guys in Afghanistan who hurt America.

 A delegation of the American senators who recently visited Pakistan gave an anti-Islamabad statement in Afghanistan during their visit there. On the other hand, Senator John McCain, who is generally considered of having a soft corner towards Pakistan, was heard speaking in Kabul that the US is keeping a close eye on the steps being taken by Pakistan to eradicate terrorism, especially the Haqqani network, and in case Islamabad did not change its attitude, America as a nation will have to change its approach then. The fact is the behaviour of the American nation rather the American establishment has already changed and the message John McCain was actually trying to convey was that he would also change his apparent outlook towards Islamabad.

 One of the changing signs in Pakistan’s foreign policy is the growing Pakistan-Russia partnership, which began with the Russian Defense Minister's visit to Pakistan on November 20, 2014 during which a historic agreement on defence cooperation was signed. Under this agreement Moscow provided 20 state of the art MI-13 helicopters to Islamabad. Pakistan also decided to buy RD-93 engines for JF-17 fighters from Russia. Pakistan has also signed a deal to buy Russia's latest fighter aircrafts, Sukhoi, for $153 million. Further details about this engagement are also available. This defence partnership has relatively made a rapid progress towards the end of 2014 after the withdrawal of most of the US troops from Afghanistan.

 The relations between Moscow and Islamabad became more prominent when the two countries held their first ever joint military drills in October 2016, called ‘Friendship 2016’. The name is symbolically of great importance, indicating that from 2016 a basis of new friendship is being laid between Russia and Pakistan. It is very significant regarding these exercises that according to some sources India had asked Russia to cancel these exercises but that could not happen.

 Pakistan and Russia are also in the process of holding a series of discussions regarding the issue of Afghanistan. The US firstly was not included in these meetings and when it was invited it did not accept the request.

 In this regard, Pakistan, Russia and China held a meeting in Moscow on December 28, 2016 and Afghanistan being the main subject of this tripartite gathering. According to a statement released after the meet, besides warning about the worsening security situation in Afghanistan the three countries expressed concern over the rising trend of Daesh in that country. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said after the meeting that the three countries also agreed to adopt a flexible approach to remove the obstacles between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

 After this, another conference for establishing peace in Afghanistan was held in Moscow on 14 April 2017. It was attended by representatives of twelve countries and the US was not among them. Though, Washington was invited but it refused to attend saying why it was not taken on board before convening the meeting. However, it can’t be brushed aside that according to Anadolu Agency report, defense analyst Gen (retd.) Talat Masood said that the US and NATO accuse Russia and Pakistan of providing safe havens and arms to the Afghan Taliban. Senator John MecCain's July 4 statement given in Kabul can also be termed as partly echoing the same allegation.

 Russia has also expressed its deep interest in CPEC project. Pakistan has reportedly recently agreed to give Russia access to the Gawadar port, with Moscow also planning to lay a railway track between the port and northwestern Chaman border.

 We can’t shrug it off that Russia and India have had very close relationship with each other in the past and Moscow still desires to maintain these relations as far as possible. However, it also realizes that New Delhi doesn’t depend and need Russia so much now and both the US and India have reservations about the CPEC project. India has aligned itself with the US and its allies. India’s attitude towards China is also becoming more antagonistic day by day. However, speaking to Indian state-run news agency, the Press Trust of India, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “There is no other country in the world that we have such deep cooperation [with,]. He added, however, that this “special relationship” between the two countries should not be a restriction on forming contracts with other “partnering countries.” Putin also refused to take sides when questioned by an Indian journalist about Kashmir and said it was not for him to decide whether Pakistan was fuelling terrorism in occupied Kashmir. He said that he believed Pakistan was taking immense steps to stabilize the situation in the country.

 Referring to Moscow’s enhancing relations with Islamabad, a News Deskon report published on 25 February 2017 said that recent times have witnessed close ties between the two cold war bitter rivals Pakistan and Russia. The changing geo-political and geo-strategic environment in Asia have forced the two states to inch closer. The same report also said that according to analysts Pakistan-China strategic ties and China-Russia emerging strategic partnership played a key role and China has played its part to bring Pakistan-Russia equation closer.

 As per the report, another natural element which played a significant role in bringing Pakistan and Russia closer is the strategic tilt of India towards the United States and Pakistan is left with no other option but to improve its relations with Russia.

 Pakistan wants to enter the Central Asia markets and Russia desires to access warm waters and the Middle East. Pakistan is also interested in buying Russian military hardware. According to the report, both countries have commonality of views on terrorism.

 In my opinion, both Russia and Pakistan are gradually narrowing their differences with regard to terrorism and they now seem to share same reservations and view point on the menace because both are feeling threatened by the growing power of Daesh in Afghanistan. Both ultimately have to work together to counter Daesh in this region in the same way Russia and Iran cooperated with each other in Syria against the same terror group.

 According to the Anadolu Agency report mentioned above, Russia has realized the fact that what it could not get through war (in Afghanistan), it can now get through dialogue and strategic partnership. This in fact is hints to Russia’s long-held desire to have access to the warm waters.