Pakistan way of New Silk Route Idea
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Jan 13,2012
Obama Administration’s AfPak envoy Marc Grossman says that the proposed new ‘Silk Road’ project places Afghanistan and Pakistan at the centre of economic activity in the region. It will also integrate regional economies from Central Asia all the way to New Delhi — maybe even to Bangladesh, leading to more employment and trading opportunities. Market access, more goods, more investment are some of the catch phrases being tossed around in support of the new endeavour.
For critics in the region, the New Silk Road project masks a strong strategic intent, aimed at connecting Central Asia with South Asia, and, thereby, denting regional big powers such as China and Russia through another regional giant India.
On the face of it, it is a great initiative offering trade, employment and economic cooperation opportunities within the region, but countries such as Pakistan, China and Russia hold serious reservations about it. Officials in Islamabad, for instance, consider New Silk Route as an attempt to exclude China from future economic activities. It also is aimed at the exclusion of Russia from any such adventure, and that is way Moscow is averse to this idea and not supportive at all. In this context, a worried Russian Federation, also wary of expanding US-NATO ties with Baltic and central Asian states, is trying to turn about this undertaking together with Afghanistan-Pakistan, using quadrilateral meetings as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Pakistan, too, is extremely skeptical and critical of the proposal that has been discussed at the quadrilateral meetings involving Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. So far, two summits have taken place and the next one is scheduled later this year. This mechanism promises a lot as far as quadrilateral cooperation, particularly in counter narcotics and trans-border crime is concerned. Informally, in parleys with Pakistani officials, Russia has been warning about the possible consequences of such an undertaking because it’s not in the long term interest of Russia, neither is it in the long-term economic interest of china. Pakistani officials say that they cannot support something that is in conflict either with the Chinese or the Russian long-term economic and political interests simply because of the importance of these two for the region.
Pakistan officially believes that activating existing mechanisms on Afghanistan and regional cooperation, and reinforcing them, such as SCO, is a better approach rather than throwing up new ideas, which basically cater to the long-term American interests. And here comes the sore point, the Americans are looking for long term bases in Afghanistan, this is something that is in conflict with the stated position of the Taliban. They don’t want any bases in Afghanistan; neither probably does China; Iran and Russia support the presence of such bases, and by implication the presence of a limited number of American troops in Afghanistan. But if the Americans press ahead with the long term bases in Afghanistan, this would amount to undermining their own drive for reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, who categorically reject the presence of foreign troops on their soil.
Officials in Beijing and Moscow look at the new silk project as the long-term encirclement of China as well as the exclusion of Russia from any possible trans border international economic activity, and this probably, as part of the long-term American strategy, is to create a ring of fire around China i.e. encirclement of China. And this route also is aimed at promoting the Indian interests in the region, helping them expand their trade in the region and that would work, according to some estimates, to the determent of China. That’s why officials say they cannot support something that is against the long-term interests of China, which by implication is also the long-term interest of Pakistan. This objective is clear, also from the Bonn conference in December, where China was not mentioned at all, and China’s name was also missing from the 2nd November, Istanbul conference when the participants were talking about the possible economic linkages across the region.
The concept of new silk route or implementing it amounts to jumping the gun. It is because of the current situation in which Afghanistan is still far away from stability and peace with its future still hanging in balance, primarily because of the incoherent American policies in the region. For instance, rulers of Pakistan’s as well as Afghanistan’s ruler Karzai don’t know what the Americans are up to. This is creating uncertainty also, in Islamabad as well as in Moscow and Beijing.
Pakistan believes that SCO is a good vehicle in creating greater understanding with Russia. This has helped in creating better synergies in counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and countering trans-border crime with Moscow. Both Russia and China are trying to reinforce the efforts and the cooperation among the SCO members, and this is something that had been going on, and has nothing to do with the post November 26 NATO attack on the Pakistani check post. Pakistani officials believe that Russia’s policy towards Afghanistan as well as on the new silk route fits into Pakistani view of future economic cooperation and the interest of all the regional countries. They believe that they can pursue the reconciliation and cooperation policy with Russia, as independently as India is conducting its economic policy with the United States. In the last couple of years, both Moscow and Islamabad have made big strides as far as harmonizing their policies on Afghanistan, and concrete steps towards bilateral cooperation is concerned.
And this way one hopes not only the quadrilateral cooperation on Afghanistan will be strengthened, but SCO will also gain more currency, as the time passes by. The recent tensions with the US, however, have made it very clear to all the policy makers in Pakistan that they have to seek medium-term to long-term cooperation with Russia and China, in order to avoid long-term dependence on US which is not very trust worthy because US, they believe, is trying to dictate terms and wants everything according to its wishes.
Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo