Saving SCO from becoming SAARC

Saving SCO from becoming SAARC

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

With the inclusion of India and Pakistan in Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), the organization’s sphere of influence, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin said, has regionally expanded, a region that has, nonetheless, myriad challenging questions that have defied solution during the last 70 years or so. Needless to say, an outstanding question is that of Kashmir and the way this issue continues to inform Indo-Pak bi-lateral relations to a very particular and narrow trajectory of conflict—something that has particularly rendered South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) as nothing more than a life-less platform.  

Therefore, an important question that has become particularly relevant from the very beginning of both state’s inclusion in SCO is that of preventing both states from bringing their hostility to it and thus render it potentially ineffective in terms of integrating the region, the sub-continent, into it.

While both India and Pakistan might find it difficult to turn the SCO into field for competition, particularly when both Russia and China have a strong presence there, both Russia and China are equally cautious of this question and the way it can dampen rather than invigorate political and economic activity that SCO promises.

As such, the ‘danger’ that SCO is facing was self-evident when Indian Prime Minister, Modi, used his speech to target state-led promotion of terrorism in the region than to emphasise the need for using the SCO for greater regional connectivity.  

“Whether it is the issue of radicalisation, recruitment of terrorists, their training and financing, unless we take coordinated and strong efforts, it is impossible to find a solution,” Modi said in the presence of PM Nawaz Sharif at the SCO Summit.

While he stopped short of naming any particular country in this behalf, it is obvious that SCO is not without Indo-Pak bi-lateral tension. This was clearly sensed by the Chinese authorities as well:

This was made all too clear at Beijing on June 1 by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson. After pointedly expressing the hope that admission of Pakistan and India would help in improving their bilateral relations, she added, meaningfully, that it was hoped that `India and Pakistan strictly follow the charter of the SCO and the idea of good neighbourliness to uphold the SCO spirit, improve their relations and inject new impetus into the development of the SCO`.

The state-run Chinese media, however, was quick to point out the impact this inclusion could leave on SCO as a report run by Global Times noted:

“If India and Pakistan are unable to realize mutual understanding on their disputes, including the Kashmir issue, the possibility of conflict remains high between both nations. Under those circumstances, it would represent the largest challenge to the SCO, and China and Russia must make more diplomatic effort to alleviate and improve India-Pakistan relations. Furthermore, the pressure from nontraditional security threats involving India and Pakistan will increase the difficulty in combating terrorism by the SCO.”

Dismissing such apprehensions, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said he believed “both the countries will abide by the charter of the organisation”.

The charter states “that the hostility between the bilateral relations should not be brought to the organisation,” he told reporters at the ceremony.

“Between our member states, our interests far outweigh our differences. So, we should not exaggerate the differences between the countries as it is not good for the organisation and cooperation between member states. After becoming members, we all become members of the big family,” Kong said.

Notwithstanding SCO’s ‘hostility-free’ charter, it is unlikely as well as unrealistic to expect both India and Pakistan to manage an overnight transformation of their relations.

China could not have been oblivious to the fate of SAARC. It is dysfunctional, a victim of estrangement between India and Pakistan and mainly used to settle scores.

India boycotted the SAARC summit that was to be held in Islamabad last year after the Uri attack. It mobilised support from regional countries to ensure the summit could not be held. Its foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said in November 2016 that the SAARC countries could opt for sub-regional initiatives if Pakistan continued to `block’ SAARC initiatives. He had in mind matters like regional trade and regional motorways, excluding Pakistan of course.

Obviously, such a mind-set cannot be hoped to work through regional tensions, or resolve outstanding questions.

For Pakistan, inclusion in SCO alongside India is yet another victory against the latter’s policy of regionally and globally isolating Pakistan.

‘Obviously, inclusion of Pakistan in the organization means that the members of SCO do not agree to India’s projection of Pakistan as the so-called ‘sponsor of terrorism’ and the Indian policy of isolating Pakistan, said one source from Pakistan’s Foreign Office.

‘What it does point to is the exact opposite’, the source informed further, and ‘makes regional co-operation imperative for all the members of the organization.’

While a full-scale co-operation might not become a possibility unless a meaningful, if not fundamental shift, takes place in both countries’ policies vis-à-vis each other, there is no gainsaying that both countries will have to learn to come to agreements together, as the organization’s political, economic and security policies and decisions depend on each and every vote of its members. The most optimistic outcome of coming together on a common platform for Pakistan and India is, of course, the possible opening of potential bi-lateral dialogue to lay out the groundwork for resolving the outstanding issues, particularly the Kashmir question.

All this obviously depends upon whether both India and Pakistan are open to making peace, which in turn depends upon how far they decide to go in accommodating each other rather than engage in blocking other party’s way as was suggested by Jaishankar and expressed through Indian policy of ‘isolation.’

Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. His areas of interest include politics of terrorism, global war on terror, ethno-national conflicts, foreign policies of major powers, application and consequences.