The 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit has brought Pakistan much closer to China and Russia as it seeks regional security and cement economic linkages with SCO members. By joining the SCO as a full member state, Pakistan has done exactly what Confucius famously advised: “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
The SCO may not have the ingredients to become a security alliance similar to Nato. But this bloc has all the elements to strengthen economic and security interdependence. In a clear sign of increasing closeness, the president of Pakistan was seated next to his Russian counterpart. During the summit, Pakistan proposed establishing a trade, transit and energy corridor, and offered its road and rail network to access the prime ports of Karachi and Gwadar. In return, Islamabad bagged Moscow’s commitment in the energy and security sectors.
Beijing went a step ahead to assure Pakistan its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, not to mention Beijing’s help in the development sector. But will it be advantageous for Islamabad that India also has the same stature in the SCO? And, in the broader picture, can this alliance be a better protective shield for Afghanistan, Iran and some Central Asian members?
Incidentally, all the SCO’s full members – Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are located along the Silk Road, but only India has yet to express support for this game-changing economic and security initiative. Despite the Chinese president urging all leaders seated around him to break waves and embark on a new voyage for this organisation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained sceptical, signalling that the Qingdao summit cannot become a new departure point for India.
New Delhi opposes CPEC on the pretext that it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. But as a matter of fact, it is pursuing an alternative to OBOR, offered by Japan with the support of the US. With soft loans and eyes on the Middle East, Eastern and Central Europe and Africa, Tokyo is building ports, plants and rail networks across Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries of the region. New Delhi is helping Tokyo in every step to cash in against rival Beijing.
Yet, with a broad smile on their faces, Narendra Modi and Mamnoon Hussain shook hands with each other. Both had nothing to offer even if they had opted for a bilateral meeting as Islamabad is currently under an interim government and New Delhi is gearing up for general elections early next year. Hence, they couldn’t go beyond making promises. The organisation still offered India and Pakistan a field for joint military exercises. Both armies have worked under the UN, but this will be a rare opportunity to boost the confidence or judge each other’s capabilities live. There is still time for the SCO to facilitate trilateral talks like China-India-Pakistan or Russia-India-Pakistan as the SCO was primarily formed to solve border issues through political means.
The SCO is basically an economic, political and military alliance – though it falls short of mutual defence. Since 2008, Iran has also been seeking full membership, only to be turned down for being under UN sanctions. In the run-up to the June summit, Tehran, with the full support of Russian President Putin, found the stage set in its favour. But then, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, leaving little room for European signatories to follow the deal. In the end, the SCO called its members to strictly observe the obligations under the deal. And as further sanctions loom large over Iran, there was no strong voice to support the accession of a core member. It was a definite setback for the Rouhani government that lost the moment to be part of an organisation led by two permanent members of the UNSC.
This time, the bloc has taken a leap by approving plans for joint anti-terror efforts, at least for the next three years. Joint drills, exchanging information and conducting anti-terror operations will help tackle the monster that has made footprints in the region in the name of Isis. It is a good sign that all countries agreed on the wording of the joint declaration as far as efforts to root out extremism, terrorism and separatism were concerned. Not only the core eight members but also the observer states, including Afghanistan and Iran, are keeping a watchful eye on terrorists settling in the region.
Russia and China have high stakes in the situation unfolding in Afghanistan as the Taliban and other terrorist groups are becoming more powerful in the northern parts of the country, bordering another member state, Tajikistan. As the blame-game about who supports Isis and the Taliban continues between Moscow and Washington, the former along with China, Pakistan and Iran is trying to establish itself as a peacemaker in Afghanistan by pedalling a regional approach. A Moscow-Beijing-Islamabad security partnership has also opened a new vista for Pakistan, which is currently serving a notice period from the Trump administration over the situation in Afghanistan.
The recent ceasefire between Afghanistan and the Taliban not only has America’s backing but the SCO has also expressed hope that there is potential to achieve more agreements and restore permanent stability to the war-torn country. If the peace process in Afghanistan is not torpedoed by hostile factors, it can suck out all the oxygen provided to the breathing grounds of Isis. The peace will also help all the SCO countries as some of them are considered to be both parts of the problem as well as solution.
Summit after summit, the SCO is strengthening itself on every front. If three years of anti-terror efforts take it anywhere, the next step can be a treaty of friendship and cooperation, and then going all the way to solve thorny border issues among members, observers and dialogue partners. That stage will be more helpful for Pakistan for offering an opportunity to solve issues with both India and Afghanistan. It will be equally fruitful for China to decipher issues with India and expand OBOR. Iran will complete its so-called Persian axis. And, Russia will stop the Nato advance in its neighbourhood or, at least, influence the global situation.
By: Nasim Haider