All eyes are on Eastern China’s coastal city Qingdao, which will host the 18th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on June 9 and June 10. This is the first SCO summit since Pakistan and India became full members of the body at its Astana summit in Kazakhstan last year.
The SCO’s eight-member states now include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan. The states host nearly half of the world’s population and over 20 percent of the global GDP. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia have observer status. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.
If we combine the SCO with the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, the SCO member states will improve cross-border logistics conditions and increase capacity. The SCO brings network, influence, leverage, big-boys club ranking, while the BRI brings money, infrastructure and connectivity.
Some major joint projects have been completed in the states, including roadways, railways and power plants. China has so far built 21 economic and trade cooperation zones within the SCO countries.
The summit will announce new measures to build joint security. Combating terrorism, separatism and extremism, drug trafficking and cybercrimes are among the top priorities. The summit will also roll out a blueprint for common development, particularly through the BRI. It will also approve a five-year plan on SCO’s Treaty of Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation and ensure six core values of Shanghai Spirit: mutual trust; mutual benefit; equality; consultation; respect for diverse civilisations; and pursuit of common development.
President Mamnoon Hussain will represent Pakistan while Narendra Modi will represent his country. Modi will be the newsmaker on the show with whom Chinese President Xi Jinping has been warming up for several bilateral and regional objectives.
Relations between Pakistan and India have been tense since 1947. They have fought three wars and have come close to wars several times in recent decades. Both countries are members of Saarc. But the regional bloc has failed to achieve progress because both countries cannot share the stage at the forum. This is the baggage with which Pakistan and India have been admitted into the SCO, which had thus far been considered a cohesive body. It is a newfound challenge for the SCO to keep two conflicting countries as members and achieve a win-win.
There has been modest progress on resolving their bilateral issues or contribution to SCO goals in regional development. The usual cross-border firing incidents along the LoC and occasional war of words continued last year. It is only when the DGMOs pick up the hotline that the issues are de-escalated to the status quo. There is, though, some symbolic progress. Both countries, which are each other’s enemy on the surface, will participate in a joint military exercise to counter terrorism in Russia in September under the SCO’s Peace Mission 2018.
Last week’s (May 29) ceasefire agreement between both countries’ DGMOs on the LoC and the Working Boundary on China’s prompt is a rare positive development. The event has been welcomed by US.
Another development was Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (SCO-RATS) Legal Experts Group Meeting in Islamabad in May, in which India also participated.
However, the real progress will be removing mutual mistrust, easing of tensions, and starting bilateral cooperation on all matters – particularly trade. It has yet to be seen how India and Pakistan will behave as full members of the SCO.
It is election year in Pakistan. At the time of the SCO summit, Pakistan’s PML-N government has already completed its tenure and a caretaker setup has been put in place to conduct general elections. The new government will take charge in August. Election results will determine how ties with India take shape. Foreign and security policies in Pakistan are under the army’s control which views India as the enemy. A hung parliament may not tilt towards peace with India as former PM Nawaz Sharif did after his 2013 win. However, if Sharif’s party returns to power with a majority in parliament, the SCO banner will be a godsend to the civilian government to make peace with India and open bilateral or transit trade.
Regionally speaking, it is in China’s interest that peace returns to Afghanistan, which has an observer status in the body. But Pakistan and India mistrust each other on their respective role in Afghanistan. For instance, India’s investment and development goals in Afghanistan are seen as strategic inroads by the army. Besides, the four-member Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) mechanism – which includes China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US – or the trilateral framework – including China in addition to bilateral framework under Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity – has only seen lacklustre progress.
To be continued
The writer is an award-winning journalist and the president of the Institute of Media and Communication (IMC) in Pakistan.