Pakistan formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana this month, alongside its archrival India. Membership in the SCO for Pakistan and India was approved in July 2015, whereas earlier both held observer status in the organisation. One naturally assumes that membership in the SCO would present both states with incredible opportunities and perhaps help resolve issues that stand in the way of amiable neighbourly relations between the two states.
However, the SCO is not the only organisation for which India and Pakistan are joint members at the regional level. Both countries are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), but unfortunately use this forum for political point scoring which poses a serious challenge to the functionality of this regional group. Nevertheless, membership of the SCO offers a separate and diverse platform because of its focus on regional integration and an emphasis on security-related concerns, with structures like Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) aimed at fighting separatism, militancy and terrorism.
The increasing membership of the SCO reflects its enhanced global and economic outreach and rising political significance. Essentially, the SCO is a unique platform that presents an opportunity for regional integration to states that include Russia, Central Asian Republics, China, and aforementioned India and Pakistan. This covers approximately 60 per cent of Eurasia. The SCO members combined will comprise roughly around half of the world’s population and produce a quarter of the global GDP.
Since it is constituted by northeast, central, and south Asian states, the SCO is the ideal setting to discuss mutual security apprehensions, devise common counter-terrorism strategies and propose better security apparatus for the settlement of disputes. As a localised organisation unlike the United Nations, the SCO allows more freedom for its member states to focus and objectively analyse and interpret issues without considerable external (read: Western) influence.
It is equally important to recognise India’s membership in another Beijing-Moscow exclusive club, BRICs, which affords it immense economic opportunities. In addition, India knows how to deal with Russia and China when it comes to power politics. While this sounds alarming for Pakistan, it may come as a relief that India is not a heavyweight in the SCO, which is unlike the situation in other organisations at the regional level such as Saarc, where Pakistan serves to balance India’s influence. As far as Pakistan is concerned, it already shares common goals with the SCO in the realm of fighting terrorism, extremism and sectarianism. Pakistan also champions economic connectivity as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative.
The SCO’s mandate, as enshrined in its articles I and II, underscores the importance of resolving regional security issues. As part of the SCO, both Islamabad and Delhi will have to follow its legal framework. The political weight of Beijing and Moscow in the SCO might pressure both states to move towards settlement of their outstanding border and territorial issues. As an organisation concerned with security, the SCO will strive to drive out militancy-related activities that plague both states. One can hope that India’s determination to isolate Pakistan and force South Asian neighbours to miscarry regional integration mechanisms like Saarc do not get emulated in the SCO. For Pakistan, this might prove to be a chance to check Indian belligerence and political nefariousness against it within South Asia and beyond.
All in all, the SCO puts forth an agenda that ensures food, transport, energy and financial security alongside projects like the integration of Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt. It is fair to say that the SCO has the potential to be a “sheet anchor for regional stability” as described by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, if India and Pakistan rise above the politics of hostility and mutually address common security issues within the SCO’s framework.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 18th, 2017.