Pakistan finally acquired its one of the most significant foreign policy objectives when it was granted full membership of the powerful Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on July 10, 2015, at its 15th Summit held in Ufa, Russia. This membership provides Pakistan with a range of marvellous opportunities on economic, political and security fronts, but certain obstructive challenges still lie ahead. At the Meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, optimistically termed Pakistan’s inclusion into the ambit of the grouping as a “turning point” in the history of the SCO and that it would prove to be a “watershed” in the changing geopolitical landscape of the Eurasian belt. He also said that the mutually beneficial economic relations with SCO member states would be Pakistan’s foreign policy priority.
The three more important questions related to this historic breakthrough in Pakistan’s external policy are:
1. What sorts of geostrategic and geopolitical opportunities this membership offers to Pakistan?
2. Is Pakistan fully prepared politically, diplomatically and economically to capitalise on its SCO membership?
3. What stumbling blocks lie ahead that could create challenges for Pakistan to take full advantage of the organization?
Let’s find answers to these critical questions.
First, since independence, Pakistan has maintained its tilt mostly toward the Western hemisphere while depriving itself from availing the tremendous economic, military and political advantages the USSR (now Russia) could offer. The United States left Pakistan in the lurch in turbulent times of 1965 and 1971 wars, while the Soviet Union relentlessly continued its all-out military and economic assistance to India. Now, Pakistan is again surrounded with vast geostrategic opportunities to revisit and diversify its foreign policy by fostering its economic and defence ties with Russia, China and the Central Asian Republics (CARs). This membership would greatly help Pakistan in winning the Russian support on Kashmir issue and on any futuristic conflict with the bellicose India. It will also help the country immensely enhance its military and economic relations with these countries in the near future.
Second, CARs, China and Russia require inexpensive and nearer port to access the oil-rich Middle East, mineral-rich Africa and economically-integrated Europe. Importantly, Pakistan’s Gwadar deep sea port is located on the gateway of the Strait of Hormuz, where roughly 40 percent of world’s petroleum passes, and the Middle East, the region that possesses 48 per cent of the world oil and 38 per cent of natural gas reserves, and it could well make Pakistan a regional trade and energy corridor. Resultantly, Pakistan can conclude joint ventures with SCO members to improve its dilapidated road and rail infrastructure connecting its mainland to Eurasian belt, enhance its economic relations with the countries in the region, embark on industrialisation and earn billions of dollars as transit fees. In this regard, SCO’s Programme of Multilateral Trade and Economic Cooperation (2003), Interbank Consortium (2005) and Business Council (2006), Action Plan in Support of Regional Economic Cooperation (2006), SCO Development Bank and Development Fund Initiatives (2012) could prove highly beneficial for Pakistan.
Third, Central Asian and Russian oil and gas reserves would help mitigate Pakistan’s acute energy crisis. According to the British Petroleum’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have proven reserves of 3.6 billion barrels of oil and 663.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. More significantly, Iran and the P5+1 inked an accord in July on the former’s nuclear programme which would result in lifting of international sanctions on Iranian economy, thus opening up its 157 billion barrels oil and 1,187.3 trillion cubic feet gas reserves for the international market. The stalled work on Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and that on Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline is expected to begin and expedite. In this regard, Pakistan would be able to import gas through TAPI and IP pipelines. It can also seek out the technical assistance from Russia’s state-run gas giant, Gazpron, on its energy projects.
Moreover, with 33.6 billion tonnes, Kazakhstan possesses the largest recoverable coal reserves in Central Asia. Besides, according to the World Nuclear Association, it holds the second largest reserves of uranium with 679,300 tonnes — 12 percent of the world’s total uranium. Pakistan needs potential resources of uranium to produce inexpensive and clean nuclear energy and to use them for strategic purposes.
Fourth, terrorism is a major problem insidiously plaguing Pakistan with losses of nearly $100 billion and around 50,000 lives. Pakistan shares SCO’s concerns regarding the three evils: terrorism, extremism and separatism. Under the umbrella of the SCO, it would acquire comprehensive counterterrorism and counter-militancy assistance from the Tashkent-based Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) to stamp out unrelenting terrorism, bubbling militancy and disruptive low-intensity insurgency in restive Balochistan. Moreover, coordinative intelligence sharing and joint operations between Pakistan and Uzbekistan will greatly help clamp down on the deadly Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that, time and again, carries out fatal terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.
Fifth, Pakistan is a main route for international drug smuggling. According to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2012, almost one-third of the drugs, worth an estimated $30 billion, produced in Afghanistan were smuggled to the rest of the world mostly via the coastal areas of Balochistan. Such illicit business helps the influential black-marketers amass substantial wealth thereby troubling the faltering economy and injecting drugs to the youth. Menacingly, terrorists and insurgents are also immersed in garnering money from narcotics businesses to continue their atrocious missions. To counter such trade, Pakistan can adopt a two-pronged approach by joining hands with the SCO to ruin drug cultivation in Afghanistan and bust drug cartels operating in the region. With China, Russia and India, Pakistan may conduct vigorous joint naval anti-narcotics drives in the Arabian Sea against the drug smuggling.
Finally, with the support of SCO members, Pakistan can play a vital role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation and rehabilitation. Afghanistan possesses mineral resources worth over $3 trillion. Pakistan can persuade China and Russia to come forward with their technological expertise and fiscal resources to help Afghanistan benefit from its natural resources and play a bigger role in Afghan reconciliation. It can also rely on CARs to spur bonhomie and political harmony between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. When suitable, Pakistan may bank on the SCO to resolve the issue of plethora of Indian diplomatic missions and consulates in Afghanistan and put a full stop against their reportedly alleged support to terrorism and insurgency inside Pakistan.
However, Pakistan is faced with a host of internal problems which could make it rather elusive for her to reap rich dividends the SCO membership offers. The issues include the lethargic political will to seriously move ahead, widespread corruption, bureaucratic red-tapism, inadequate and dilapidated transport infrastructure, continuing terrorism, militancy, insurgency that deteriorates the law and order situation, energy shortages, brain drain, disinvestment, flight of capital, simmering insurgency in Balochistan and federally handpicked provincial incompetent and toothless setups making Gwadar port and trillions of dollars in provincial resources elusive and prone to corruption and misappropriation.
If the country genuinely wishes to cash in on the SCO membership, the leadership of the country will have to end its sluggishness and lethargy. A drive against corruption, ineptness for reforms and corrupt bureaucracy should be launched with an aim to foster good — and speedy — governance. Moreover, government should stringently implement counterterrorism and counter-militancy measures and build road and rail infrastructure with the commencement of both small- and large-scale industries and strive sincerely to politically resolve Balochistan’s simmering problems.
The writer is a former senior researcher at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA), and now an independent researcher and columnist based in Karachi.