Azerbaijan: Pakistan’s newfound strategic partner in the Caucasus - COMMENT

2019/02/pak_azerbaijan_400-1549544253.jpg
Read: 1203     16:52     07 February 2019    

By Hriday Sarma


The state of Pakistan continues to draw attention from the Western media for its growing proximity with China and for its alleged support for Islamic terror groups acting in Afghanistan. Amid rising global criticisms towards Pakistan, the newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to create a neutral and responsible image for his country. He is initiating new partnerships and reinvigorating existing ones, striking fresh economic deals and rearranging the country’s internal power structure. Khan’s moves are above all driven by a need to ensure state survival as the national debt becomes increasingly unmanageable. Few countries today are willing to fully cooperate with and support Pakistan under any bilateral/ multilateral arrangement – the exceptions being China and Saudi Arabia who act so as to achieve vested strategic interests.

Azerbaijan, apparently, is one of the very rare countries today helping Pakistan in times of need. In October 2018, Azerbaijan officially agreed to offer a $100 million line of credit to Pakistan so as to help address growing energy shortages and ensure the supply of Azeri oil and oil-based products such as natural gas. In the preceding month, Muhammad Sadiq Sanjran, Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan – i.e. the upper house of the Pakistani Legislature – visited Azerbaijan to participate in celebrations of the Azerbaijani Parliament’s 100th anniversary. The celebrations were held with much fanfare both within the country and in other countries – including the US – with whom Azerbaijan shares a close relationship. Such high-level political visits between both countries have become the new norm, a trend that has gained momentum since the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff’s visit to Azerbaijan in October 2016.

In October 2018, a delegation of Pakistani Armed Forces led by Brigadier General Reyhan visited Azerbaijan to discuss bilateral military cooperation – especially in the area of public relations and moral-psychological training of both armies. The visit has been instrumental in ending longstanding denials regarding the sale of JF-17 Thunder jets (Joint Fighter-17) by Pakistan to Azerbaijan. The news has found wide media coverage in both Pakistan and Azerbaijan; however the international strategic community – including military experts from India closely following Pakistan’s strategic matters – largely remain uninformed about this development.

The JF-17 is a Chinese-Pakistani joint project, belonging to the BLOCK2+ configuration. This fighter aircraft is equipped with a (KLJ7A) radar and is capable of performing different combat functions. Azerbaijan’s acquisition of a negotiated fleet of 24 advanced fighter jets will give it superior airpower advantage over its neighbour and arch-rival Armenia. The two countries have been locked into a protracted conflict since the early 90s, when Armenia seized the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave – which Azerbaijan claims to be an integral part of its national territory – through military means. Hence, Azerbaijan feels the need to gain support from militarily powerful countries such as Pakistan – a fellow Muslim country – so as to counter Armenia’s position as a protégée of the state of Russia and maintain an independent foreign policy stance in the region. Azerbaijan trusts Pakistan as a solid partner for it was among the first countries to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Pakistan has also never established diplomatic relations with Armenia. This growing strategic military cooperation between Pakistan and Azerbaijan is premised on a protocol on bi-lateral military cooperation signed on March 31st, 2015, which subsequently led to signing of the “Book of Honour” on November 24th, 2017.

This rising political-military cooperation has led to the development of economic ties between both countries, including in the area of private business. According to the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan, bi-lateral trade amounted to $8.34 million in the period between January and September 2018. This volume of said trade was of $5.2 million in 2017 and $7.3 million in 2016; this reflects a bumpy but overall rising trend in trade volume in recent years. Pakistan has contributed most to this bilateral trade by exporting both raw and manufactured commodities – from potatoes, rice, onions, and tomatoes to garments, pharmaceuticals and various medical products. Azerbaijan increased exports of oil and energy-related products to Pakistan so as to enable the country to cope with its acute energy shortages. This increase in bilateral trade has drawn attention from different quarters, including among the national media and policy analysts; however in absolute terms, trade still remains quite scant. At present, none of the two countries figures in each other’s top 10 export/ import destinations.

In order to overcome this problem, the signing a five-year comprehensive plan and a preferential trade agreement so as to scale up bilateral trade to $500 million is now much discussed. In 2017, Azerbaijan even established a permanent trade mission in its embassy in Islamabad, qualifying Pakistan among the few countries – others being Russia, Turkey, and the US – where this has been done. Both governments are trying to bring in private players, both large and medium businesses owners, as stakeholder partners in the endeavour to strengthen bilateral ties. There are about 270 companies funded by the Pakistani capital registered in Azerbaijan; these are spread across a wide range of sectors – including logistics, communications, education, etc. – and have so far invested $4.2 million in the host country’s economy.

Another noticeable aspect of this emerging cooperation is the rising number of Pakistani tourists visiting Azerbaijan. Recent years have witnessed a growing number of Pakistanis coming to Azerbaijan for business and leisure purposes. In fact, Baku has now become the “new Dubai” for Pakistanis. This trendy city is quite affordable in terms of both living and travel-related costs, and offers a sense of safety which Pakistanis find lacking in many countries – particularly Western countries. In 2018, the number of Pakistani tourists visiting Azerbaijan is likely to have crossed 25,000. In 2017 the exact number of Pakistani tourists entering Azerbaijan was 17,556; only 3,800 did so in 2016. In January 2017 the Azerbaijani government created tourist visas to be accessible online – which instantly became popular in Pakistan. A direct flight between Azerbaijan and Pakistan is scheduled to be launched soon, as announced by Azerbaijani Ambassador to Pakistan Ali Alizade on the Pakistani television’s Channel 5.

Azerbaijan and Pakistan have shared deep socio-cultural connections in both ancient and medieval times. The Baku Ateshgah, an ancient Zoroastrian Temple, is a fine example of this fact. However, these connections were almost lost during Soviet rule over Azerbaijan and British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent. Azerbaijan was also reluctant to fully associate with Pakistan in the1990s and 2000s because the Aliyev administration feared that this may lead to the spread of radical Islamism in the country; however its recent softening stance towards Islam is motivating greater engagements with Pakistan. In fact, the new strategic partnership between the two countries is retrieving historical ties so as to meet contemporary geopolitical and economic imperatives.

The international community – both in the region and across the globe – should consider following Azerbaijan’s example and constructively engage with Pakistan. In this context criticisms regarding the newly-elected government’s current shortcomings in dealing with the country’s prevailing economic (and social) crisis are perhaps best refrained from for the time being. Failing to do so would push Pakistan further into the Chinese camp – while Islamist terrorismremains unchecked.

Hriday Ch. Sarma is a Fellow with the South Asia Democratic Forum. In addition, Hriday heads the Center for South-Caucasus-South Asia Business Development, a non-partisan organization working towards building economic linkages between the two regions

South Asia Democratic Forum



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News Line

Azerbaijan: Pakistan’s newfound strategic partner in the Caucasus - COMMENT

2019/02/pak_azerbaijan_400-1549544253.jpg
Read: 1204     16:52     07 February 2019    

By Hriday Sarma


The state of Pakistan continues to draw attention from the Western media for its growing proximity with China and for its alleged support for Islamic terror groups acting in Afghanistan. Amid rising global criticisms towards Pakistan, the newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to create a neutral and responsible image for his country. He is initiating new partnerships and reinvigorating existing ones, striking fresh economic deals and rearranging the country’s internal power structure. Khan’s moves are above all driven by a need to ensure state survival as the national debt becomes increasingly unmanageable. Few countries today are willing to fully cooperate with and support Pakistan under any bilateral/ multilateral arrangement – the exceptions being China and Saudi Arabia who act so as to achieve vested strategic interests.

Azerbaijan, apparently, is one of the very rare countries today helping Pakistan in times of need. In October 2018, Azerbaijan officially agreed to offer a $100 million line of credit to Pakistan so as to help address growing energy shortages and ensure the supply of Azeri oil and oil-based products such as natural gas. In the preceding month, Muhammad Sadiq Sanjran, Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan – i.e. the upper house of the Pakistani Legislature – visited Azerbaijan to participate in celebrations of the Azerbaijani Parliament’s 100th anniversary. The celebrations were held with much fanfare both within the country and in other countries – including the US – with whom Azerbaijan shares a close relationship. Such high-level political visits between both countries have become the new norm, a trend that has gained momentum since the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff’s visit to Azerbaijan in October 2016.

In October 2018, a delegation of Pakistani Armed Forces led by Brigadier General Reyhan visited Azerbaijan to discuss bilateral military cooperation – especially in the area of public relations and moral-psychological training of both armies. The visit has been instrumental in ending longstanding denials regarding the sale of JF-17 Thunder jets (Joint Fighter-17) by Pakistan to Azerbaijan. The news has found wide media coverage in both Pakistan and Azerbaijan; however the international strategic community – including military experts from India closely following Pakistan’s strategic matters – largely remain uninformed about this development.

The JF-17 is a Chinese-Pakistani joint project, belonging to the BLOCK2+ configuration. This fighter aircraft is equipped with a (KLJ7A) radar and is capable of performing different combat functions. Azerbaijan’s acquisition of a negotiated fleet of 24 advanced fighter jets will give it superior airpower advantage over its neighbour and arch-rival Armenia. The two countries have been locked into a protracted conflict since the early 90s, when Armenia seized the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave – which Azerbaijan claims to be an integral part of its national territory – through military means. Hence, Azerbaijan feels the need to gain support from militarily powerful countries such as Pakistan – a fellow Muslim country – so as to counter Armenia’s position as a protégée of the state of Russia and maintain an independent foreign policy stance in the region. Azerbaijan trusts Pakistan as a solid partner for it was among the first countries to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Pakistan has also never established diplomatic relations with Armenia. This growing strategic military cooperation between Pakistan and Azerbaijan is premised on a protocol on bi-lateral military cooperation signed on March 31st, 2015, which subsequently led to signing of the “Book of Honour” on November 24th, 2017.

This rising political-military cooperation has led to the development of economic ties between both countries, including in the area of private business. According to the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan, bi-lateral trade amounted to $8.34 million in the period between January and September 2018. This volume of said trade was of $5.2 million in 2017 and $7.3 million in 2016; this reflects a bumpy but overall rising trend in trade volume in recent years. Pakistan has contributed most to this bilateral trade by exporting both raw and manufactured commodities – from potatoes, rice, onions, and tomatoes to garments, pharmaceuticals and various medical products. Azerbaijan increased exports of oil and energy-related products to Pakistan so as to enable the country to cope with its acute energy shortages. This increase in bilateral trade has drawn attention from different quarters, including among the national media and policy analysts; however in absolute terms, trade still remains quite scant. At present, none of the two countries figures in each other’s top 10 export/ import destinations.

In order to overcome this problem, the signing a five-year comprehensive plan and a preferential trade agreement so as to scale up bilateral trade to $500 million is now much discussed. In 2017, Azerbaijan even established a permanent trade mission in its embassy in Islamabad, qualifying Pakistan among the few countries – others being Russia, Turkey, and the US – where this has been done. Both governments are trying to bring in private players, both large and medium businesses owners, as stakeholder partners in the endeavour to strengthen bilateral ties. There are about 270 companies funded by the Pakistani capital registered in Azerbaijan; these are spread across a wide range of sectors – including logistics, communications, education, etc. – and have so far invested $4.2 million in the host country’s economy.

Another noticeable aspect of this emerging cooperation is the rising number of Pakistani tourists visiting Azerbaijan. Recent years have witnessed a growing number of Pakistanis coming to Azerbaijan for business and leisure purposes. In fact, Baku has now become the “new Dubai” for Pakistanis. This trendy city is quite affordable in terms of both living and travel-related costs, and offers a sense of safety which Pakistanis find lacking in many countries – particularly Western countries. In 2018, the number of Pakistani tourists visiting Azerbaijan is likely to have crossed 25,000. In 2017 the exact number of Pakistani tourists entering Azerbaijan was 17,556; only 3,800 did so in 2016. In January 2017 the Azerbaijani government created tourist visas to be accessible online – which instantly became popular in Pakistan. A direct flight between Azerbaijan and Pakistan is scheduled to be launched soon, as announced by Azerbaijani Ambassador to Pakistan Ali Alizade on the Pakistani television’s Channel 5.

Azerbaijan and Pakistan have shared deep socio-cultural connections in both ancient and medieval times. The Baku Ateshgah, an ancient Zoroastrian Temple, is a fine example of this fact. However, these connections were almost lost during Soviet rule over Azerbaijan and British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent. Azerbaijan was also reluctant to fully associate with Pakistan in the1990s and 2000s because the Aliyev administration feared that this may lead to the spread of radical Islamism in the country; however its recent softening stance towards Islam is motivating greater engagements with Pakistan. In fact, the new strategic partnership between the two countries is retrieving historical ties so as to meet contemporary geopolitical and economic imperatives.

The international community – both in the region and across the globe – should consider following Azerbaijan’s example and constructively engage with Pakistan. In this context criticisms regarding the newly-elected government’s current shortcomings in dealing with the country’s prevailing economic (and social) crisis are perhaps best refrained from for the time being. Failing to do so would push Pakistan further into the Chinese camp – while Islamist terrorismremains unchecked.

Hriday Ch. Sarma is a Fellow with the South Asia Democratic Forum. In addition, Hriday heads the Center for South-Caucasus-South Asia Business Development, a non-partisan organization working towards building economic linkages between the two regions

South Asia Democratic Forum



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