Of late there are some indications from both Pakistan and Russia that Moscow may also join the multibillion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), adding a new dimension to the colossal project. Pakistan has also unofficially suggested that India join the CPEC project instead of trying to sabotage it. Both are extremely significant developments and would have large scale implications for the CPEC.
Insofar as Russia’s joining of the CPEC is concerned, Moscow would not hesitate a single second to join the project, provided Pakistan and, more importantly, China let it join. There have been some positive signals from Pakistan to Russia. The reason why Moscow would be eager to become even an auxiliary part of the CPEC is that it has been the long-cherished desire of Russian rulers to have access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Since the times of the mighty 18th century Russian emperor, Peter the Great, to the present day Russian leader Vladimir Putin, all have wanted to provide Russia access to the warm waters of Asia. Because most of the other seas surrounding the massive landmass of Russia, are not as strategically or economically convenient as the southern oceans. Russia could not match the military prowess of the United States because inter alia, the advantage which the latter has because of its geography. The US is surrounded by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which are open to all kinds of navigation. Therefore, for the economic and military strength of Russia, access to to the Indian Ocean had been important. But times have changed irrespective of the highly nationalistic agenda of veteran Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia today may not get any real military advantage after having access to the warm waters but it obviously would have large-scale positive impact on Moscow’s economy. The fact is that the main stakeholders of the CPEC—Beijing and Islamabad—may not have liked Russia to get any military advantage by joining the CPEC, but would not feel threatened by Moscow getting a proportionate economic advantage by joining the CPEC.
In case there is an understanding first between China and Pakistan and subsequently between these two countries and Russia, the latter could only be part of the CPEC when the Central Asian Republics (CARs) are also linked to the project. Most of the CARs states have shown their desire to join the CPEC provided China and Pakistan agree. As China’s has massive plans of reviving the ancient Silk Route, which once linked the huge Eurasian landmass with China playing the pivot, Beijing would be more than willing to economically link Central and South Asia along with Russia. Because, in the final analysis, it would be Beijing, the second largest economy of the world, which would benefit the most from links between Central and South Asia.
Here it may be mentioned that the CPEC was conceived by Beijing to give access to its own landlocked northwestern regions, particularly Xinjiang, bordering CARs, to the Gwadar port of Pakistan. These northwestern regions of China are relatively largely underdeveloped in comparison to the south and eastern China. Gwadar is the shortest possible access, or inlet, for northwestern China to the sea. Once linked to the sea the trading products from the remote regions of China could be sent in huge volumes to markets in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and even South East Asia. Whereas, the supply of essential consumer and capital items to northwestern China could also be greatly facilitated.
With one of the fastest growing economies of the world and a population of one-and-a-half billion people, China’s vision is not merely limited to CPEC or opening up of its northwestern regions. Rather, Beijing has a wide vision and practical plans to build many such economic corridors across Asia. But for contemporary Pakistan, CPEC is an economic lifeline for the future. Arguably, Pakistan has not had a more important economic project than CPEC throughout almost 70 years of its existence. Therefore, Pakistan would want to derive maximum advantage from it. However, the approach of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government of Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif is mired in self-interest. It has tried to use the CPEC project to its political advantage by diverting most of the funds provided by Beijing to mega projects in its electoral forte, the Punjab province. Resultantly, smaller provinces, particularly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, have been raising a huge hue and cry over discrimination by the federal government in the implementation of the various projects of the CPEC and also the change in the original route of the economic corridor which had to traverse large parts of those provinces. But sanity has started prevailing after Beijing took matters in its own hands by assuring all the chief ministers of the four Pakistani provinces that all would get proportionate share in the CPEC funds and projects. This is constructive management by China and Pakistan must be immensely thankful to it. Because CPEC, undoubtedly, is the project on which the economic future of Pakistan hinges. Not even the economic future but also the security and development of Pakistan.
Coming back to the issue of Russia’s joining the CPEC, Pakistani decision-makers, in spite of wanting 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 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 presently have any real military and strategic interests by joining CPEC.However, President Putin’s agenda of making Russia once again a real power-wielder is not so secret. For instance, it has tried to prevent Ukraine from falling into the lap of the West and its military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; its annexation of the Crimea and its support to Bashar Al Assad in Syria in his fight with the anti-regime forces in recent years and months, point towards revivalist efforts for lost Russian power and status.
So, Pakistan must be extremely cautious in dealing with different aspects of CPEC, as it cannot afford to jeopardize the benefits associated with the project, or its equation with China.