The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) 18th summit, held recently in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao, seemed to have brought a semblance of order in an otherwise turbulent week for global politics and diplomacy. After all, the images emerging from the SCO summit were markedly divergent from the images of the G7 Summit in the Canadian city of Quebec. At the G7 event, consensus achieved between the members over 24 hours of hard work was left in utter disarray by US President Trump withdrawing the USA’s endorsement of the joint Communique and targeted Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau through a series of antagonistic tweets.
Conversely at the SCO summit, the people of the South Asian countries saw Indian Prime Minister Modi and Pakistani President Hussain shaking hands after a prolonged period of strained ties. Not just this, India and Pakistan have recently completed a joint military exercise for the first time ever, under the aegis of the SCO in Russia. While these two countries had served together in the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in the past, the joint military exercise was a first!
So can we interpret these initial steps as a sign of more to come?
Well, only time will show a credible answer! For now, these developments are in stark contrast to what the SAARC, the South Asian regional cooperation organization, has failed to pull off so far. The last SAARC summit, scheduled in Islamabad in 2016, was cancelled after India withdrew over the Uri terror attacks. Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh also followed India. Most initiatives of the SAARC, apart from these summits, have inevitably been at the mercy of India-Pakistan relations. The equation between these two countries, the largest in the South Asia region in terms of population, territory and economy, has kept regional solidarity in a state of perennial paralysis. Not many regions globally suffer from the dismal lack of progress on regional cooperation as South Asia.
To the extent that countries like India and others are now hoping for sub-regional economic cooperation initiatives, wherein the Pakistan factor does not hold progress hostage. The growing popularity of sub-regionalism has manifested itself in initiatives such as the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement, amongst others. While the jury is still out whether sub-regional economic cooperation can actually work, the silver lining that is appearing is the potential of the SCO grouping in helping sustain cordial ties between India and Pakistan within a regional framework.
A background of the SCO
The SCO was set up in 2001 with China and Russia as the original members, along with the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its roots go back to 1996 when it was known as the Shanghai-Five (Uzbekistan was not a part then). One of the core objectives of this forum is to fight the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism to improve regional security. It also aims at economic cooperation between the members along with military cooperation and cooperation on security through intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism activities. The SCO was expanded in 2015 when India and Pakistan were confirmed as new members. The admission of India and Pakistan led to introspection within the forum over its own evolving security architecture, given the complex India-Pakistan equation. Initial reservations aside about the two nations extending their mutual animosity to the SCO forum and paralysing its progress, there is now a growing belief that the SCO can actually help transform their acrimony.
So where do things go from here for India and Pakistan diplomacy?
On the India-Pakistan equation, the answer partially lies on the geopolitical weight of the other actors in the SCO. Unlike the SAARC where the smaller South Asian countries cannot do much but watch the bickering of the larger two members that keeps regional cooperation hostage, it is China and Russia who call the cards at the SCO. Experts have signalled India and Pakistan cannot bring their mutual acrimony to the forum. India may hold the biggest power-card by far at the SAARC, but the power-dynamics are very different at the SCO where India is not in a dominant position and Pakistan is relatively on a more equal footing.
If its security architecture is analysed, then the SCO is actually an answer to Pakistan’s insecurities vis-à-vis India – which the SAARC suffers from. It is likely that Pakistan would feel more comfortable at the SCO in the presence of China, its all-weather ally; and hence may be willing to implement the initiatives of the SCO with a more open attitude. Moreover, this organization is focused on Central Asia, a region Pakistan has identified more strongly with time and again in comparison to South Asia. Any extension of an olive branch by India here will give Pakistan an extra sense of comfort.
For India, this might open up a chance of Pakistan acting like a bridge between South and Central Asia rather than an obstruction – a geostrategic win in itself!
While it sounds too good to be true for these positives to actually materialize, there is a pressing need for China and Russia – as the SCO’s larger founding members – to take a lead in setting the tone for credible cooperation and integration initiatives. Let us hope that the SCO does not limit itself to just being a talk-shop, as the SAARC forums have often been criticized to be; rather the SCO takes concrete actions to institutionalize cooperation and ensure the gains do not wither away!