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Pakistan Eager to Join Security Pact
Pakistan's recent overtures to the Shanghai Forum - Central Asia's fledgling security pact - have set alarm bells ringing across the region.
On January 3, Habib-ur-Rahman, Pakistan's ambassador in Bishkek, informed the Kyrgyz foreign ministry of Pakistan's desire to join the alliance which currently comprises Russia, China, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
But, while the Kyrgyz government cautiously welcomes the move, experts across the region warn that Pakistan's membership could have a destabilising effect on the pact as a whole and sour relationships with India.
Taking its lead from the Sino-Soviet commission on territorial affairs, the Shanghai Forum was established to promote military cooperation in the fight against terrorism, separatism, drug smuggling and the illegal arms trade.
In the Dushanbe Declaration of 2000, the member states expressed their mutual commitment to peace whilst fiercely opposing any attempts at "world supremacism" -- a thinly disguised jibe at the USA.
In many respects, the Shanghai Forum is a military and political alliance conceived as a counterbalance to NATO. It openly opposes the unsanctioned use of force by the UN and interference in the internal affairs of other states -- even under the guise of providing humanitarian aid or protecting human rights.
Mongolia, India and Iran have already expressed an interest in co-operating with the Shanghai Forum but Pakistan is the first country to seek member status.
After the formal application from the Pakistani embassy, the Kyrgyz foreign ministry issued the following statement: "The Shanghai Forum is an organisation which is open to everyone. Many states have displayed an interest in its work but Pakistan is the only country to date which has taken firm steps to become a member of the organisation."
The Indian embassy in Bishkek was clearly taken by surprise. Diplomats refused to comment on Pakistan's membership bid, saying that India was not a member of the Shanghai Forum and was not in a position to discuss its affairs.
However, India's relations with the Central Asian states have traditionally been harmonious whilst relations with Pakistan have never been so bad.
Alisher Abdimomunov, chairman of international affairs committee for Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly, commented, "Pakistan's bid to join the Shanghai Forum is a direct result of its complex relationship with India."
Abdimomunov warned, "I don't think India would ever forgive us. If Pakistan is accepted into the Shanghai Forum, the members of the organisation -- first and foremost the countries of Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan -- will simply lose India for good."
Kyrgyzstan's recent relations with Pakistan have been cautious. Although diplomatic ties were established in May 1992, there is still no Kyrgyz embassy in Islamabad, whilst representations have been set up in China, India and Iran.
There have been few joint trade ventures beyond some Pakistani investment in the Kyrgyz pharmaceutical industry and the opening of an Islamic Bank of Reconstruction and Development branch office in Bishkek.
There have, however, been a number of exchange programmes for Kyrgyz army officers and diplomats -- almost a third of officials in the Kyrgyz foreign ministry have received training in Pakistan.
And, despite general suspicion of Pakistan's Islamic allegiances, links have been forged with the Aga Khan religious foundation in the hope that this "civilised" school of Islam might act as a counterbalance to the Islamic fundamentalism which continues to haunt Central Asia. Plans are even afoot to establish a branch of the Islamic University in Bishkek.
However, General Pervez Musharraf's military coup in Pakistan has ushered in a marked change of attitude.
Most experts agree that Pakistan plays a pivotal role in the security of the region. The birthplace of the Taleban, Pakistan is seen by many as a springboard for Islamic incursions into Central Asia. Countries like Kyrgyzstan, still smarting from the raids on the Batken region in 1999 and 2000, are putting their hopes for stability in the tough regime in Islamabad. Leonid Bondarets, military expert at the Institute of Strategic Studies, comments, "Without Pakistan, the problem of stability in the Central Asian region cannot be resolved -- but, on the other hand, both India and Iran should also be members of the Shanghai Forum."
Pakistan's recent interest in Kyrgyzstan is clear. Although the former Soviet republic has limited influence in the Shanghai Forum and the CIS as a whole, it could provide Pakistan with a contact point for both alliances.
Pakistan's bid to join the Shanghai Forum has spawned two opposing schools of thought. Some observers conclude that Pakistan is attempting to assert its independence and distance itself from its traditional ally, the USA. Others are convinced that Pakistan is set to become America's stooge inside the Shanghai Forum with a view to destabilising the organisation and sabotaging regional relationships with India. By all accounts, Washington welcomed the military coup in Pakistan. Alexander Alyanchikov, an expert on world cultures and religions at the Slavic University of Kyrgyzstan, said, "Literally two days after the coup, the USA restructured Pakistan's $900 million debt."
"General Musharraf is not an independent national leader but a figurehead who suits America. Pakistan is making overtures to the Shanghai Forum on Washington's express instructions. Pakistan's role is simply to undermine the organisation."
Alyanchikov concludes, "Pakistan's membership of the Shanghai Forum is not in Kyrgyzstan's interests. Pakistan has no real significance for Kyrgyzstan and vice versa. Pakistan's membership is equivalent to Russia joining NATO."
Russia, on the other hand, seems equally keen to forge new links with Pakistan, encouraged by signs that the new government is asserting its control.
Natalia Khalyapina, an independent expert on the Middle East, says, "It's as if everything has been turned upside down. America, which traditionally sided with Pakistan, is making advances towards India while Russia is seeking to establish relationships with Pakistan.
"I don't think Kyrgyzstan needs to build close ties with India. Pakistan is a more tractable country, prepared to play by 'civilised' rules. I think that Pakistan's bid to join the Shanghai Forum is the result of diplomatic manoeuvring in Moscow. Pakistan's membership would be good for Moscow whilst India has no choice but to maintain links with Russia."
Furthermore, Pakistan's influence over Afghanistan is seen as a key factor in regional stability. And this stability is likely to usher in large-scale economic projects such as the construction of international roadways -- which would be of considerable benefit to the Kyrgyz economy.
Many experts consider that Pakistan's membership of the Shanghai Forum is only a question of time and, for Kyrgyzstan, this is the key to security in the troubled southern region. However, the former Soviet republic will be obliged to tread a diplomatic tightrope between Delhi and Islamabad. But, for a small country with limited natural resources and simmering conflicts, this kind of diplomacy has always been a prerequisite for survival.
Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor
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