SCO and Its Prospects for Steering Peace and Stability

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In a speech on 11th September 1990, President George H.W. Bush coined a new phrase which he termed as a New World Order. The concept was in regards to terminating the Cold War alliances and the integration of liberal hegemonic principles under the leadership of the USA.  This course carried on well for about two decades until it was challenged by a new potential hegemon, i.e. China. However, China views international politics from a different perspective. It seeks to alter the status quo and desires a multipolar world where power is distributed among a number of states.

Moreover, China and Russia aim to mould international politics in such a way that regional issues can be dealt with, without the interference of the U.S. and its western allies. Likewise, China is keen to avert the spillover effect of terrorism in the region, since regional security is central to the success of its Belt Road initiative (BRI). Hence, it is going to be the security factor which will devise an apt environment for economic integration and eventually drive prosperity in the region.

To deal with the prevailing geostrategic environment, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has surfaced as a salient organization and is indeed a manifestation of a changing international order. It is often perceived as antagonistic to western interests and has been touted as the “NATO of the East” by Western thinkers. The SCO initiative was commenced in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The culminating moment for the organization was 2017 when full membership was granted to India and Pakistan. This was indeed a remarkable moment as these states hold immense significance in the region due to their geostrategic locations. Moreover, pacifying tensions between the two is crucial for regional stability.

Four days ahead of the SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; China issued a statement which might haunt many in New Delhi. On Monday, 10th June, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui stated, “Security and development are two major issues of focus for the SCO”. He said that the establishment of the SCO was not aimed at targeting any particular country, but that summit of this level would certainly pay attention to major international relations and regional issues”. This was a glaring reference towards India, pointing out its criticism of Pakistan for allegedly fostering terrorism at the SCO summit. This statement came in the light of the fact that Prime Minister Modi would carry out his verbal assaults on Pakistan and blame it for reinforcing terror-related activities at the summit.

In his first visit to the Maldives, Modi made several references aimed at attacking Pakistan. He stated, “It is very unfortunate that people are still making the mistake of distinguishing between good terrorists and bad terrorists. State sponsorship of terrorism is the biggest threat the world is facing today”. Furthermore, he also attempted to rally support for his narrative by highlighting that terrorism is not just a threat for a country but to all civilization.

However, the statement given by China is indeed the hallmark of the SCO’s commitment to keep regional stability intact. The China-led regional organization wants to avert the prospects of its member states amplifying their bilateral tensions and engaging in a blame game; rather it seeks to increase economic integration and compel states to work together for their mutual benefit. The wicked scheme of isolating Pakistan and accumulating endorsements for accusing it of terrorism, vaporized in the given context.

The 2018 SCO summit proved very fruitful for Pakistan as it was able to assert its utmost willingness to cooperate with the organization on matters related to security. Similarly, in the 2019 summit, events rolled out in Pakistan’s favour right from the start. Firstly, Pakistan was able to schedule a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who praised Pakistan’s endeavours towards peace and security. The contemporary situation in the Middle East, Iran and even the Kashmir issue was discussed in the meeting. Bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan have attained a heightened magnitude with respect to the increased defence cooperation and the ongoing Afghan Peace Process.

An interesting aspect is that Russia, China and Pakistan are more or less on the same page with respect to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would ultimately lead to dwindling U.S. influence and more opportunities for regional players. All three want a stabilized Afghanistan for the smooth flow of the commercial activities and economic interconnectedness with the Central Asian States. Afghanistan was given an Observer status in the SCO in 2012, and from 2017 onwards the SCO-Afghan Contact Group has held three annual meetings to discuss current and future prospects of the security situation. India, on the other hand, is reluctant to accept the fact that the Taliban is an indispensable part of Afghanistan. Instead, it desires the installation of an Afghan government which can be instrumental in waging proxy wars against Pakistan, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan.

Secondly, in a side meeting with the Chinese, President Xi Jinping praised Pakistan’s efforts in fighting terrorism and promoting peace in the region. He pointed out that in the past eight months, he had met Prime Minister Imran Khan three times, and this fully reflects the high level of the all-weather China-Pakistan strategic partnership. Apart from this, upgradation of the CPEC and bilateral issues were also discussed.

Thirdly, the speech given by Prime Minister Imran Khan was very calculated and reasserted Pakistan’s desire to work with fellow members towards the regional integration. The PM highlighted Pakistan as an attractive destination for investment, and also pointed out the need for a transition from confrontation to cooperation for enduring peace in South Asia. Similarly, he highlighted Pakistan’s efforts and sacrifices in countering terrorism and even offered to share Pakistan’s experiences with other members to mitigate this threat.

Before the summit, Pakistan demonstrated its readiness to cooperate with India: The Pakistani government permitted Modi’s flight to fly over Pakistan’s airspace for his visit to Kyrgyzstan despite the announced closure till 14th June ( later on,  the Indian government decided to opt for the longer route). PM Imran Khan extended another letter to his Indian counterpart for the promotion of peace in the region. Pakistan also wanted a meeting between both heads of the states, which was turned down by the Indian government despite the fact that such a meeting was crucial in the aftermath of the tensions experienced in the initial part of the year.

The Indian government, however, circumvented any reciprocity towards Pakistan. In a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping, Modi ruled out all the possibilities of a multilateral approach to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan. What is being termed a “diplomatic snub” by the Indian media is actually the manifestation of India’s persisting efforts to forestall the easing of relations between both states. The absurd blaming of Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism ignores the fact that Pakistan has laid down a large number of precious lives in combating terrorism and is continuing to do so till this day. On the other hand, India itself is endeavouring to jeopardize security conditions in Pakistan to undermine the CPEC.

India must realize that the attitude it has exhibited at SAARC conferences cannot be replicated in the SCO. The towering vested interests of China and Russia would not permit India to sabotage the regional environment. Secondly, isolating Pakistan is not an achievable goal, partly due to its blessed position and partly due to the fact that the world can see its seriousness in eradicating terrorism. India’s refusal to endorse the BRI at the recent summit, due to its reservations on CPEC won’t have a substantial impact on the initiative. Consequently, Pakistan being the highest beneficiary of the BRI initiative will carry immense relevance in the forthcoming times.

India and Pakistan cannot and should not refrain from coming to the talking table. It is in their foremost interests that they take advantage of the given opportunities. SCO 2019 was indeed a golden opportunity which India let go of much too quickly. Availing the different economic opportunities offered by the SCO and expanding cooperation will be a win-win situation for both. The sooner they realize it, the better it is for their long term interests.

Lastly, international sanctions against Russia and the aggressive American attitude towards China is inevitably going to augment the forum even more in the future. There are a number of states such as Bangladesh, Armenia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Egypt which have applied for observer status in the SCO. The expansion and fortification of the organization are imminent in the future. SCO will indeed play a vital role in fostering a befitting environment for security and economic growth in the region. This will mark a new era in the international order where the centres of growth, opportunities and prosperity will find their way to Central and South Asia. Likewise, this economic interconnectedness will serve as a de facto alliance and minimize future conflicts.

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Shaza Arif
About Shaza Arif 20 Articles
Shaza Arif is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan

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