Bilateralism in Foreign Policy


Asad Tahir Jappa

Evolving multipolar world and a paradigm shift in the international system have reworked the region’s political models and provided Pakistan and Russia an opportunity to re-evaluate their mutual relations

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s very recent two-day official visit to Russia is of immense value as it is the first by a Pakistani premier to Moscow in the last 23 years. Pakistan and Russia enjoy friendly relations marked by mutual respect, trust, and convergence of views on a range of international and regional issues. It goes beyond saying that the visit would further cement Pakistan’s bilateral relations with Moscow. This critically important visit encompasses a wide range of vital areas of mutual interest including an enhancement of bilateral relationships, virtual cooperation in diverse fields, a review of the entire array of bilateral relations including energy cooperation, and an exchange of views on major regional and international issues, including Islamophobia and the situation in Afghanistan. The visit not only highlights that the two countries have moved closer to one another but also signifies Pakistan’s geostrategic positioning that is driving Moscow to prioritize better relations with Islamabad in the region. For at least the next decade, threats emanating from South Asia will directly challenge Russia’s security. The ongoing Afghan conflict and cross-border issues such as terrorism, organized crime, and nuclear security are the shared challenges and to address them, Moscow needs a new approach to South Asia that prioritizes developing Russian-Pakistani relations. Moscow also has interests in South Asia that have forced it to develop its ties with Islamabad and other regional actors in recent years. Further developing the Pak-Russia relations can be an important instrument of economic growth and security in both South and Central Asia.
Evolving multipolar world and a paradigm shift in the international system have reworked the region’s political models and provided Pakistan and Russia an opportunity to re-evaluate their mutual relations. Pakistan has a significant place in the emerging geopolitical chessboard in Eurasia, owing to its geographical location, strong military with advancing nuclear capability, and considerable influence in the Islamic world. Trajectories of Pak-Russia relations have undergone rapid changes in the backdrop of the new Cold War which in the past were subject to the consent of either US or India. As the Quad continues to cement its role in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, a regional security arrangement involving Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey will counter-balance the Quad. On 26 November 2021, Pakistan and Russia, in the region of Ural, signed an MoU to boost bilateral cooperation by discussing prospects for Pakistani companies to enter the Russian market. During the corona pandemic, Pakistan was facing a COVID-19 vaccine deficit due to India’s halt of Oxford-AstraZeneca exports, Moscow came to Islamabad’s rescue by sending 50,000 doses of its Sputnik V vaccine. In April 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Islamabad – the first visit by a high-level Russian official in nearly a decade. It was a very successful visit. Likewise, Russian warships participated in the 45-nation AMAN-21 Biennial Naval exercises hosted by Pakistan in the Arabian Sea in February 2021. In November 2020, Russian special operations troops held joint drills with their Pakistani counterparts in the ‘Friendship 2020’ exercises at the Tarbela training ground KP. Similarly, Russia signed an agreement for setting up coal power plants at Muzaffargarh and Jamshoro and the construction of a railway track from Quetta to Taftan.
In 2019, under an integrated Russian Investment package, Russia pledged $14 billion for Pakistan’s energy sector including offshore gas pipeline and underground storage projects. Strengthening of Pakistan and Russia bilateral military cooperation under the Russian-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) set up in 2018. Two developments, in particular, supported the Pak-Russia rapprochement were the signing of a bilateral defense cooperation agreement in 2014 and Pakistan’s inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with Russian backing in 2017. To expand Islamabad-Moscow ties beyond security, Russia is likely to invest in the construction of the 1100km-long Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline that is planned for transporting gas from Karachi to Kasur. Under the North-South Pipeline project, Russia will export 500 mill CFD to one billion CFD gas to meet the growing demand for gas, following industrialization under the China Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC). Moscow backs the “criteria-based approach” for new members of NSG which indirectly supports Pakistan’s NSG application. Russia’s invitation to the Pakistani Premier to visit Moscow after a gap of 23 years is reflective of Pakistan’s increased geostrategic significance in the region.
Furthermore, Russia’s tilt towards developing cooperation with Pakistan as India gets closer to the cooperation among Pakistan, China, and Russia is conducive to curbing the disturbance of external forces. Pakistan and Russia relations have entered into a new phase of a strong relationship, which would usher in a new era of fruitful benefits for both countries. Pakistan’s economy is growing fast and the country is becoming an attractive destination for foreign investors including Russia. Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has gained much credibility and is rapidly evolving into a key element of the regional security architecture and a useful tool to carry out cross-regional economic, energy, and infrastructure projects. Russia attaches particular importance to cooperation with Pakistan in the framework of the SCO. Russia’s extensive support to Islamabad in turning its observer status into a full-fledged membership has also contributed significantly to bringing the two countries closer. Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) on trade, economic, scientific, and technical cooperation, and other bilateral mechanisms offer a unique opportunity for Pakistan and Russia to take significant steps to proceed from framework cooperation agreements to business contracts. The trajectory of Pak-Russia defense cooperation and its expansion is an important factor in regional security. Pakistani and Russian security interests are increasingly intertwined, therefore, Moscow cannot afford to ignore the emergence of new threats in Islamabad.
Regional integration is fundamental to enhancing socio-economic relations in the region. In the fast-changing world, the regional connectivity that CPEC offers can certainly lead to substantial economic gains with Central Asia, Russia, and China. Pak-Russia enhanced partnership would prove exceptional in bringing stability in Afghanistan which is the key to ultimate peace in the region. Russian support of Islamabad’s quest for NSG membership would be a huge indicator of the deepening of the Russia-Pakistan security relationship and the possibility of Russian interest in investing in Pakistan’s quest for civil nuclear power. Many independent political analysts agree that Pakistan’s international status had risen significantly, and the great personal charisma of PM Khan had been highly recognized by the international community.
In recent years, Pakistan’s diplomacy, focusing on geo-economic strategy, has been very vigorous and successful with a commitment to balanced relations among major powers in the world. In the ultimate analysis, it can be safely propounded that the recent historic visit to Russia by PMIK marks the end of only looking westward as it ushers in a new era of bilateralism in Pakistan’s foreign policy.