NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 20-21

Can Russia finally join CPEC?

After securing an unprecedented fifth term as President of Russia, Vladimir Putin is poised to strengthen ties with China. Media reports suggest that President Putin will visit China in May for extensive discussions on strategic security and economic matters with Chinese President Xi Jinping. There are indications that Russia, under Putin’s leadership, may fully engage in President Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to economically integrate 60 countries across the Afro-Eurasian regions. Of particular interest is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship component of the BRI, where Moscow may seek involvement.

Both Pakistan and Russia have hinted at the possibility of Moscow joining the multibillion-dollar CPEC, potentially adding a new dimension to the project. Interestingly, Pakistan had unofficially extended an offer to India to join the CPEC rather than disrupt it.

Regarding Russia’s potential participation in the CPEC, Moscow appears ready to join the project at the behest of Pakistan and, more crucially, China. Positive signals have been exchanged between Pakistan and Russia, with Moscow eager to fulfill its longstanding aspiration of gaining access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. This ambition traces back to the era of Peter the Great and continues under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, as access to these waters is deemed essential for Russia’s economic and military interests.

Although the strategic landscape has evolved since Peter the Great’s time, with the United States enjoying maritime dominance, Russia perceives access to warm waters as crucial for its economic prosperity. While military advantages may not be as significant today, economic benefits for Moscow from joining the CPEC are considerable. Beijing and Islamabad, as the primary stakeholders of the CPEC, may not favor Russia gaining military advantages, but they are likely open to Moscow securing proportional economic benefits through participation in the project.

Coming back to the issue of Russia’s joining of the CPEC, Pakistani decision-makers in order to take military and strategic advantage by having closer ties with Moscow so as to neutralize India’s hegemony, should not go an extra mile to make Russia part of the CPEC. Rather it should leave the decision solely to China despite the fact that the latter may not have any problems with Russia joining the CPEC. The project is conceived and funded by China; therefore, it is Beijing which should be given the control over its dynamics and stakeholders. Because Russia may not have any real military and strategic interests by joining the CPEC but with a change of command in the Kremlin a change may occur in Moscow’s policy. Moreover, President Putin’s agenda of making Russia once again a real power wielder or to put it simply make it a superpower again, is not so secret. For instance, how it has tried to prevent Ukraine from falling into the lap of the West and its military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its support to Bashar Al Assad in Syria in his fight with the anti-regime forces in recent years and months as well as support to Iran point towards revivalist efforts for lost Russian power and status.

So Pakistan must be extremely cautious regarding dealing with different aspects of the CPEC as it cannot afford to let go of any of the benefits associated with the project.

While there is mutual agreement among China, Pakistan, and Russia regarding the potential involvement of the latter in the CPEC, it’s essential to note that the Central Asian Republics (CARs) must also be integrated into the project for this to materialize. Many CAR states have expressed interest in joining the CPEC, contingent upon approval from China and Pakistan. Given China’s ambitious plans to revive the ancient Silk Route and its significant economic stake in linking Central and South Asia, Beijing is likely to welcome the inclusion of Russia and the CARs into the project. Ultimately, China stands to gain the most from enhanced connectivity between Central and South Asia, bolstering its status as the world’s second-largest economy.

The CPEC was initially conceived by Beijing to provide access to its landlocked northwestern regions, particularly Xinjiang, bordering the CARs, via the Gwadar port in Pakistan. These regions of China are relatively underdeveloped compared to the more prosperous south and east. Gwadar offers the shortest route for northwestern China to access the sea, facilitating substantial trade with markets in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. China’s broader vision extends beyond the CPEC, encompassing multiple economic corridors across Asia.

For Pakistan, the CPEC represents a crucial economic lifeline for its future development. Throughout its nearly 70-year history, Pakistan has not encountered a project as significant as the CPEC. Consequently, Pakistan aims to maximize the benefits derived from it. However, previous Pakistani governments, particularly under the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have been criticized for politicizing the CPEC and directing a disproportionate amount of funds toward mega projects in the Punjab province, neglecting smaller provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. This led to grievances regarding the distribution of CPEC funds and changes in the project’s original route. However, Beijing intervened, assuring all provincial chief ministers of a fair share of CPEC funds and projects. This demonstrated effective management by China and underscored the significance of the CPEC for Pakistan’s economic, security, and developmental future.