During the recent years, there has been a ‘meteoric rise’ to the concept of ‘regionalism’ and the number of ‘regional organisations’ has grown unprecedentedly. The Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, the Eurasian Economic Union, Saarc, Asean, BIMSTEC, and other such groupings were established by countries situated within a geographical region with an aim to cooperate with one another on matters of mutual interest and to work collectively for transforming the socioeconomic conditions of their peoples. In the context of the Eurasian region, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has got a lot of prominence owing to its potential to be a game-changing bloc for this part of the world. Pakistan has also shown its keenness to join the bloc and its request for membership was approved in principle at SCO Heads of State Summit held in Ufa, Russia in July 2015. It signed the Memorandum of Obligations to become the full SCO member in Tashkent in June 2016.
This article will explore the significance of Pakistan’s membership in the Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the potential benefits the country will be able to reap from it in the near future.
In regional organizations, the interests of the member states act as major driving force. Pursuance of shared interests and goals gives strength to an organization for meeting its objectives. However, believing in unity in diversity is the starting point for finding common scheme for resolution of conflicts. SCO is a classic example of unified diversity as most of its members widely differ in ethnic and linguistic makeup. Despite strategic positions of the member states—especially China and Russia, the two recognized global powers—and their respective roles and influences in the world, the bloc has been moving forward successfully. The organization’s growing prestige is evidenced by a substantial package of applications for joining it in one or another quality.
Pakistan and the member states of the SCO have common geo-strategic and geopolitical interests and also face similar threats. For SCO, the issues of separatism, militancy, extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking are of grave concern, whereas Pakistan is at the front line of all the battles against these challenges. This commonality of purpose has eased prospects for enhanced cooperation between the two.
In addition, Pakistan enjoys deep cultural and religious affinity and historical links with Central Asian Republics (CARs)—the other four member of the SCO. Due to this closeness, unrelenting support from time-tested, all weather friend China and prospects of improvement in Pakistan-Russia ties made all the strong reasons to make Pakistani leaders think of becoming a part of this bloc. Pakistan was admitted to the SCO as an Observer in 2005, and has attended all important meetings of the organization.
Since Pakistan is expected to become a full member of SCO at a regular summit of the leaders of the SCO member states in Astana in June 2017, it is apt to have a brief account of the benefits the membership of this important bloc can bring for Pakistan.
1. The permanent SCO membership for Pakistan will ensure greater access to resources and energy import projects within the grouping’s framework. Pakistan would not have to wait for long, just the start of the permanent membership will provide Pakistan an opportunity to play its cards strongly with conventional development partners like the United States and multilateral donors including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank.
2. It will significantly strengthen the country’s position in the region and the world over and will have a positive impact on several major issues pertaining to military and technical cooperation between Russia and Pakistan and on huge communication projects with China. With plans to connect the Silk Road Economic Belt with the Eurasian Economic Union, the role of Pakistan in regional economy and infrastructure projects will definitely increase as the CPEC project between Islamabad and Beijing is part of the Silk Road Belt.
3. Pakistan’s membership will also help build bridges with India despite the fact that the two estranged nations are nearly always at loggerheads over security issues—a major piece of what the SCO tackles. In accordance with the ‘Shanghai Spirit’, every country has a moral obligation on it to maintain good relations with other member states. Since both India and Pakistan are going to be the members; Pakistan’s permanent membership will send a clear message to India that it will have to maintain friendly relations with Pakistan. It would not be wrong to state that for the resolution of the lingering disputes between Pakistan and India, the SCO provides both an opportunity and an appropriate platform. And, given its effective track record of conflict resolution, the SCO also creates hope for the possibility of a productive outcome as well as prevention of any possible future escalations.
4. Full membership of the SCO will allow Pakistan to play an anchor role in regional trade, peace and stability by offering more opportunities for regional connectivity. Owing to its geostrategic location, Pakistan will be able to open doors to new linkages across the entire Eurasian region through road links and sea routes. It will open up economic connectivity for all SCO members, with not only our region but neighbouring ones as well, through ease of access. It will be the best conduit between SCO countries and the South Asian region, providing the shortest possible trade routes between Central Asia and Iran on the one hand, and the Russian, Chinese and Indian markets on the other. It will also enhance trade itself by linking up the region together with new energy corridors. In the current environment of enhanced regional economic cooperation, and the SCO’s newly reiterated emphasis on this aspect, Pakistan will act as the ‘zipper’ bringing the region together, both physically and economically.
5. Pakistan will be able to share its expertise in fighting terrorism and extremism—the biggest threat being faced by the CARs—that can be an asset to the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) and the Regional Counter Terrorism Structure (RCTS). With the addition of Pakistan, the collective efforts by member states to counter terrorism and violent extremism will attain an important ally, as the country has been effectively countering this menace for over a decade now. The internationally lauded Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which has reclaimed Pakistan’s national space from terrorists, is a prime example of the successes achieved in this context.
6. The SCO membership will provide Pakistan with an opportunity to not only have a greater influence in the regional security architecture but also to become able to acquire an important position in the SCO Development Vision till 2025. Pakistan should prepare well to avail itself of the openings and opportunities offered by the SCO because the bloc has proven its effectiveness in conflict resolution and the conflict prevention mechanism. Hence, Pakistan needs to consider the SCO as an alternative forum to help in resolving its disputes with India. Pakistan’s defence and security perspectives, as well as objectives, would be better served once it becomes a permanent member of the SCO.
7. Finally, with the support of other SCO members, Pakistan can play a bigger role in reconciliation in and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, which possesses over $ 3 trillion worth mineral resources. Pakistan can persuade China, Russia and CARs to come forward with their technological know-how and fiscal resources to help Afghanistan benefit from its natural resources and play a bigger role in Afghan reconciliation. When suitable, Pakistan may bank upon the SCO to resolve plethora of Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, reportedly supporting terrorism and insurgency inside Pakistan.
Indeed, the permanent membership will help achieve greater access to resources and energy import projects; country’s position in region and the world will get strengthened, and there will be huge positive impact on military and technical cooperation between Russia and Pakistan. This will mark the opening of communication projects with China. In all, the full membership of the SCO not only advances Pakistan’s positive image internationally, but also helps the country in having tangible political, security and economic dividends.
SCO is an emerging international organization having wide domain of political, economic and security cooperation amongst its member countries. Contrary to SAARC, it is a balanced organization and Pakistan’s relations with China will not allow India to damage the interests of Pakistan. This organization is in the interest of South Asia as a whole for it has largely evolved from focusing on security issues, regional connectivity and trade. This offers an opportunity for Pakistan, whose geo-strategic location can help it act as a conduit between SCO member countries and its neighboring states. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline (in a post-sanctions scenario), as well as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI) are two examples of opportunities that stem from such regional cooperation, and can only be realized if and when this cooperation is institutionalized through organizations like the SCO. Furthermore, the forum can also act a venue for conflict resolution in the region.
It is not only Pakistan that would appreciate SCO cooperation or membership, but also Pakistan’s cooperation is vital for many of the Central Asian States, as well as China, and Russia. Pakistan has legitimate stakes and a vital role to play in Afghanistan’s stability and in securing the Chinese interests. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) further strengthens these ties.