After years of speculation about their accession, India and Pakistan have finally been admitted as full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, broadening the geopolitical potential of the grouping, and partially watering down the dominance of Russia and China. The move could also help ease tension between the two South Asian rivals, some experts and officials suggest.
The accession of India and Pakistan, whose hostility in the past has hindered progress in other regional groupings, is being formalized at the 17th summit of SCO heads of state, being held in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, on June 8-9. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is playing host to the gathering, described the development as “historic.”
Other members of the bloc include founder nations China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
While the SCO is regularly portrayed as little more than a talking shop, the expansion is noteworthy and will see the group incorporate two nations that are home to some 1.5 billion people, making the body a regional forum of a scale matched by few others.
In a commentary for a Chinese state-run news website, Jon Taylor, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, noted that India and Pakistan’s membership “will expand the SCO’s geographical coverage to nearly 70 percent of the Eurasian continent and comprise nearly half the world’s population.” Taylor cast the SCO as “a counterbalance to Western political, economic, and military cooperative organizations.”
Other regional initiatives involving India and Pakistan have run aground, however, amid rancor between these historic foes. But Irfan Shahzad, a researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, told EurasiaNet.org that he was hopeful that the SCO would not have a repeat of the same experiences that bedeviled other bodies, including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Economic Cooperation Organization.
“With SAARC and ECO falling short of their promise so far, the SCO becomes a regional grouping and forum of the future for Islamabad,” Shahzad said.
At a briefing before the summit, the joint secretary of India’s Ministry for External Affairs, G. V. Srinivas, said he saw no risk of tensions with Pakistan disrupting the overall operations of the bloc. “[The SCO] is a constructive organization. We have a lot to gain from the areas where there is convergence. The areas of divergence need not necessarily be a setback for us,” Srinivas said on June 7.
Speaking to the Global Times, a Beijing-based tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party, terrorism expert Li Wei was likewise upbeat, predicting that the SCO might bring the two nations closer together. “India and Pakistan are accusing each other of ‘supporting terrorism,’ and this is generally based on their domestic political agenda and dispute,” Li said. “SCO members will support them and offer help if the two countries need it, rather than internationalize their dispute within the organization,” Li told the newspaper.
Athar Zafar, a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi, echoed Li’s evaluation of the SCO’s potential concerning the South Asian rivals. “India and Pakistan both joining the SCO will strengthen the organization, and it carries a very low risk of any negative impact on regional integration because Pakistan, under the SCO mandate, will not be permitted to raise bilateral issues and hamper regional cooperation,” Zafar said. “Increased security cooperation by different mechanisms of the SCO platform can help reduce the trust deficit among members.”
Such optimism notwithstanding, leaders have continued the tradition of speaking about the prospects of the organization in the broadest possible terms. Ahead of his departure for Astana, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he hoped the SCO would help improve “economic, connectivity and counter-terrorism cooperation.” At present, counter-terrorism appears to hold out the most realistic prospect for cooperation.
Now, as fellow SCO members, India and Pakistan will be expected to participate in joint military exercises under the auspices of the organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), which is based in Tashkent.
Srinivas said that India was certain to take part in any anti-terrorism exercises — an eventuality that would see Delhi’s troops placed in the improbable position of working in concert with those of its most vehement opponent.
But Shahzad, the Islamabad expert, expressed doubt about how joint operations and exercises would work in practice. “I am a little skeptical about how the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terror Structure would actually apply [to] Pakistan, and what would be the medium to long term implications for the country’s overall security environment,” he said.
Even with these large new members fresh on the team, the agenda is still plainly being set by the two dominating nations, Russia and China. Yury Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, said on the eve of the summit that discussions would primarily focus on the situations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Ushakov said the issue of Afghanistan would be the subject of particularly in-depth attention during smaller breakaway meetings among leaders. “The situation there is showing a tendency toward worsening, and the positions of the Islamic State are strengthening,” he told reporters.
Russia will lobby during the SCO summit for the intensification of RATS-related activities.
The plan for Astana is for 11 joint documents to be signed on June 9. Of these, the most symbolic will be the Astana Declaration, which SCO Secretary General Rashid Alimov has said will be a “political declaration covering almost all spheres of SCO activities and [stating] the position of the heads of state and the organization on major of regional and global issues.”