It has been announced that a three-country meeting on Afghanistan is to be held shortly in Moscow, to bring together Russia, China and Pakistan in order to confer on matters of regional peace and stability. Continued turmoil and civil strife in Afghanistan lie behind this initiative, with the three invited participants believing they are among those at risk from the spillover of the Afghan troubles and hence must collectively do something to try to contain the problem. The consultation in Moscow is to be at the level of senior officials, and Islamabad has made it known that its Foreign Secretary will be deployed for the meeting. Presumably the other participants will be represented at similar level. This is apparently the third such meeting though the earlier ones were not conducted with comparable publicity, and thus the forthcoming event looks as if it will be breaking fresh ground.
Afghanistan has been through an unending series of internal conflicts magnified by external interference ever since the overthrow of the former King some half-century ago. It is only recently that the Afghans have themselves been able to take steps to put matters to rights and establish a stable system of rule. President Ghani, following in succession President Karzai through a democratic transition, has done much to continue and strengthen the process of restoration that was started in the time of his predecessor. Having in this manner successfully taken charge of their own affairs, Afghans are understandably surprised and questioning of the fact that the tripartite meeting about their country is to take place without their participation. This omission has been highlighted by spokespeople in Kabul, and while the invited participants have tried to gloss over the issue, questions remain about the selection and the nature of the conference. Only a few weeks ago the 'Heart of Asia' conference on Afghanistan, the latest in a series, was convened in Amritsar with a large number of participants who set out to address issues of peace and development in Afghanistan. It is to be seen how the three participants shortly to assemble in Moscow can relate their own deliberations to the process shaped in Amritsar. As yet not very much has been made known about the structure of the tripartite meeting though a Russian spokesperson has said that his country has been holding discussions within the region, including China, Iran, India, and also Pakistan. Not much more is known at this stage of what to expect from the Moscow event.
Among those who are to take part, China has recently assumed a bigger role in regional and security affairs in its neighbourhood. China's Xinjiang province adjacent to Pakistan is often restive and faces the risk of infiltration by fundamentalist elements that could stir up sentiment in the local Muslim population. Afghanistan has not been directly drawn in, but the region as a whole has experienced a number of incidents in past years and China has every reason to heighten watchfulness in its borderlands. At the same time, in newly prominent Baluchistan local sensitivity has been stirred by the enlarged Chinese presence and there have been a number of violent incidents. Thus China has a number of concerns to bring to the regional consultation in Moscow. Even so, it remains strongly supportive of Pakistan, as seen in its commitment to the China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC)) that could have a profound effect on the region as a whole. China's commitment to the project was reiterated by its official spokesperson who also advised India not to hold aloof but to join in this important initiative.
Chinese regional policy remains what it was but that is not the case with Russia which in recent months has been engaged in building bridges with Pakistan and has taken important steps to restore relations with that country. There are many aspects: economic ties are advancing, so too is cooperation in political and security matters, and most striking is Russian willingness to sell a limited amount of military equipment to Pakistan. Earlier, the dividing lines were quite clear and there was little expectation that military sales could take place. It is also noteworthy that this current warming of relations is not part of a general improvement in Pakistan's ties within its neighbourhood, for regional countries like Iran and Afghanistan have kept their distance… not to mention India, whose relations with its neighbour are at a nadir. One can speculate that military sales were undertaken by Russia both for commercial reasons and also to develop relations with the all-important Pak army establishment, as part of its more active policy in the region. Whatever the reasons, Russia has broadened its options and assumed fresh regional responsibilities.
The forthcoming tripartite meeting has brought considerable relief to Pakistan for it seems to have reduced some of the pressures on that country. Only days before the announcement, there was a statement from the Pentagon accusing Pakistan of providing freedom of action for terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani group, which are under the scanner and are frequently accused of enjoying sanctuary in Pakistan. Against this background, the opportunity of coming together with Russia and China on a 'new regional project' to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan comes as an unlooked for opportunity. Little wonder that this has been described as a 'watershed moment' by the Pak official spokesperson. One may well wonder why this should be so for there is nothing to suggest any Pak change of heart that would encourage positive revaluation of its policy. Making the most of the opportunity, Pakistan has made the offer to Russia to provide it with access to newly developed Gwadar, which has the potential of serving as the warm water port Russia has always coveted.
As an indicator of the many transformations currently in train in Asia, US Secretary of State Kerry urged regional countries to take a bigger role in peacemaking. Coming when it did, this could be regarded as an implicit US gesture of support for the tripartite initiative, even though both Beijing and Moscow presently have their differences with the USA on broader issues of grand strategy. It is possible that when the new President takes charge there will be changes of priority and emphasis in US policy towards this region. For the moment, however, what is to be seen is a fluid interregnum between two Administrations, a time of change that affects all the major players in Asia. At this juncture, when so much transformation is in the air, India needs to be alert and prepared to make the policy adjustments that may be needed to promote its interests and strengthen its voice in the region.
The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.