This Article is From Dec 27, 2016

Pak-Russia-China Get Closer. What That Means For India

Just when it seemed new, possible alignments were emerging on the international stage towards the end of 2016, possibly to distract from India's renewed obsession with domestic matters such as demonetisation, US president-elect Donald Trump has spun the wheel in a different direction, calling up old enemies to possibly assist with challenging new ones.

25 years since the US actively promoted the break-up of the Soviet Union, Trump has taken a much softer line towards Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Indian foreign policy establishment is watching carefully, wondering whether this means that it will no longer need to choose between its historic strategic partner, Moscow, and its alliance of recent vintage with the Americans.

Fact is, as India spends ten times more money on buying US weapons than Russian equipment, while bilateral trade between Delhi and Washington reaches 15 times trade levels between Delhi and Moscow, the gaps in understanding between India and Russia have only grown wider.

In the last week of September, 70 Russian and 130 Pakistani troops took part in first-ever joint exercises which were inaugurated at the Pakistani special forces academy in Cherat, 34 km south-east of Peshawar, at 4,500 feet in the Khattak mountain range.

This is how "Russia Today" described the event:

"Carrying equipment weighing around 15kg, representatives from (Russia's Southern Military District's mountain infantry brigade based in Karachay-Cherkessiya demonstrated how to make a safety mechanism using a station knot.

Their Pakistani colleagues returned the favor, showing them another safety mechanism using a special rope with three knots."

Delhi wasn't amused. Still, it isn't clear why the Indian Foreign Office wasn't able to see such a move coming. It's not as if Russia and Pakistan, Cold War rivals since the late 1980s when Pakistan did everything in its ability to help the US defeat the mighty Red army in Afghanistan, woke up one summer morning and decided they would climb the mountains at Khattak together.

The Russians have since downplayed the incident, just as the Pakistanis have played it up. In fact, Russian officials, off-the-record, even deny that Putin's special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told reporters at the recent "Heart of Asia" conference in Amritsar that India should not be "jealous" of the incipient Russia-Pakistani friendship in the making.

But Moscow hasn't stopped wooing Pakistan - some say, under Chinese pressure. It has offered to refurbish a 1960s vintage steel plant, as well as build a pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. A few helicopters have been offered for sale, even as unconfirmed reports suggest that the two sides have begun their first intelligence-sharing exchanges on the region.

Meanwhile, the wheel was spinning differently elsewhere. As the outgoing Obama administration targeted Putin for interfering in the US election and sought to paint him as an international monster for opposing the US intervention against Syria's Bashar-al-Assad, Russia began to scout around for friends and supporters. It found China, ever-willing to do both business and strategy.

Interestingly, as Putin looked towards India, he found both former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be far more interested in engaging with the Americans. In fact, it was rumoured that Modi didn't even want to go to Moscow for his first summit meeting with Putin in late 2014 and wants to send a senior official instead. Better sense prevailed.

China's strategic embrace of Pakistan has been in the offing for several years. But it was the US which paid Pakistan $18 billion in the 15 years since the September 11 incidents as its contribution to the war against terror - only to find Pakistan double-crossing it on a variety of fronts in Afghanistan. As China waited in the wings, Rawalpindi seemed only too happy to dump the US in favour of a closer cinch with China.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has now become the linchpin of that friendship, with Beijing's alleged promise to spend $46 billion on the creation of new infrastructure from the Karakoram highway in Gilgit-Baltistan to the port of Gwadar in Balochistan.

Russia's interest in Pakistan is not new. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto almost went to Moscow in the 1990s but it seems that Indian diplomats like Ronen Senand Sati Lambah persuaded Moscow to postpone a friendship with Rawalpindi. Until June 2015, when Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif became the first army chief in decades to visit Moscow. His spokesman, Gen. Asim Bajwa, tweeted:

"Wreath laying at tomb of unknown soldier. Heart-warming to see Russian band play Pakistan anthem perfectly."

Meanwhile, Zamir Kabulov, who had recently completed a posting in Kabul as Russia's ambassador - where he saw the enormous power that Pakistan's intelligence agency and army wielded in Afghanistan - was beginning to exercise power in the Russian establishment.

"Kabulov believed that while Pakistan was part of the problem in the ongoing conflict that prevented the stabilization of Afghanistan, it was also part of the solution because of its over-sized influence in that country," said Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

As the Central Asia states which abut Afghanistan began to weaken as a result of their ageing but increasingly dictatorial leaderships, Kabulov was able to sell the line that Afghan militancy and drugs could become a big threat not only to Central Asia but to Russia's own soft underbelly.

An Indian official who has been closely associated with Afghanistan policy over several decades, said on the condition of anonymity, "Soon after the September 11 incidents and the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan, the Western world believed that Pakistan had the key to the region. So much so that the US forbade India from entering into any security-related partnerships with Afghanistan, as it believed that was the prerogative of Pakistan.

Today, 15 years later, many things have changed. India is in a much stronger place in Afghanistan. The US is now the disillusioned party and hopes India will lift its game to help out in that country. And Pakistan has replaced the US, its key mentor and funder, with China as its main strategic partner in the region.

The chips are falling in entirely unforeseen ways. Russia, China and Pakistan could be coming together in a loose association of sorts, while India and the US hang together on the other side.

Except, with Donald Trump as the new US president, things could change again. Reading the tea-leaves in these interesting times, as the Chinese would say, is fraught with risk. Nevertheless, if Trump reaches out to Putin as he has promised to do - and as his presumptive Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to do, with his own decades of experience of drilling for oil in Russia, he could succeed in extracting him from Xi Jinping's jaws.

For India, that would be the best news - Modi riding off into the sunset with Trump and Putin together - even if it is still in the realm of fiction.

The way 2016 has turned out, however, nothing is implausible. Perhaps real life will have a shot at imitating fiction next year.

(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)

Disclosure: Nandan Unnikrishnan, the Russia expert, quoted in this story is married to the writer.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.