Recognising an opportunity

February 5, 2023

India invites Pakistan to the upcoming SCO summit

Recognising an opportunity


ndia has formally invited Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to attend the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in New Delhi.

In the wake of World War I, the global powers had realised the significance of international organisations. The League of Nations was established in 1920 to facilitate global cooperation in terms of preventing wars. Due to organisational lacunae, the League failed to stop armed conflicts. However, the belief in realising peace, security and economic cooperation through international and regional organisations gained currency post-WW II.

The establishment of the Unites Nations in 1945 and the European Economic Community in 1957 can be cited as vivid cases to underscore the extraordinary importance of international and regional institutions. The UN is still a dynamic global institutional arrangement to discuss various issues the world is facing. Its efficiency in achieving peace, especially in conflict-ridden zones, is a separate question. The EEC morphed into the European Union in 1993 and

is toady one of the leading regional organisations with effective institutions to enhance regional cooperation. Importantly, non-Western regions of the world have followed suit. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, for example, was founded in 1960 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967.

In our own region, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was founded in 1985 with the aim to promote regional cooperation among otherwise indifferent countries.

In the post-Soviet period, Russia and its traditional partners seemed concerned about their security. Russia faced a peculiar situation in Central Asia where five nation-states had emerged as independent countries. During the Cold War period, Central Asia had remained in the Soviet sphere. It was in this context that Russia and China initiated a diplomatic process for a regional forum to discuss issues of mutual interest including boarder management. The Shanghai Five group, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, was formed in 1996 to solve such disputes and propose confidence-building measures.

Normatively, this was specified in the Agreement on Strengthening Mutual Trust in Military Fields in Border Areas in 1996 and the Agreement on Mutual Reduction of Military Forces in Border Areas in 1997. In the Almaty Declaration made in 1998, it was agreed that the Shanghai Five would extend cooperation to combating ethnic separatism, religious fundamentalism, international terrorism, arms smuggling, narcotics and other cross-border criminal activities.

In 2000, the then Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, stressed the need to transform the ad hoc forum into a regional organisation for multilateral cooperation. The next year, with the inclusion of Uzbekistan as the sixth member, the Shanghai Five transitioned into what is now known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This was followed with the establishment of a secretariat and a regional anti-terrorist structure in 2004. In 2005, India, Pakistan and Iran three important countries that fall in extended neighborhood of both China and Russia attained the observer status. Mongolia had been granted a similar status a year earlier.

Since its formal launch in 2001, the SCO has attracted a significant amount of attention owing to its potential as a viable organisational mechanism to discuss, and solve, issue of mutual concern. Geo-strategically, some scholars, in 2000s, viewed the SCO as a counterbalance to the US hegemony in Asia. The organisation’s increasing engagement with India, Pakistan and Iran might have rung alarm bells in the power corridors in the US-led North that was fighting its War on Terror in South Asia and the Middle East. The SCO’s call for the US to vacate its military bases in Central Asia at the Astana heads of state summit in 2005 is cited as a case in point.

In 2006, the SCO member states gathered in Shanghai to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the organisation.

Recognising an opportunity

Geo-strategically, some scholars, in 2000s, viewed the SCO as a counterbalance to the US hegemony in Asia. The organisation’s increasing engagement with India, Pakistan and Iran might have rung alarm bells in the power corridors of the US-led North that was fighting its War on Terror in South Asia and the Middle East. The SCO’s call for the US to vacate its military bases in Central Asia at the Astana heads of state summit in 2005 is cited as a case in this respect.

Although the Shanghai Five, and later the SCO, initially emerged as an organisation primarily occupied with the settlement of border disputes and counterterrorism regionally, it has lately devoted efforts to trade facilitation as well. The idea of economic cooperation and trade promotion surfaced initially in the 1990s within the framework of the Shanghai Five. However, the formal launch of the SCO with its sub-institutions consolidated the idea of regional economic engagement and market connectivity on a sustained basis.

It pertinent here to invoke historical and contemporary facts on trade and economic linkages across the region. What today stretches up north of the Pamir mountains into the Fergana Valley to Khorgos in the east and the Caspian in the West, was once a zone of strong economic interactions that is gradually realising an economic revival in terms of china’s Belt and Road Initiative. As is well known, during the Cold War, cross-border interaction and trade between Central Asia, Afghanistan, China and Iran was minimal due to trans-regional rivalries. However, following a shift in China’s global policy known as the “reform and opening-up” introduced in 1978, regional and global economic cooperation has emerged as a singular theme in China’s economic calculus. This is often reflected through regional platforms of which Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is an integral part.

In continuation of reformism and global economic cooperation, the SCO members signed a memorandum of understanding on regional economic cooperation that was to be followed by the adoption of the Multilateral Trade and Development Program in 2003. Subsequently, the programme was specified in more detail at the Tashkent summit held in 2004 where 127 projects were included in a specific regional action plan. The same year, China announced its provision of a $900 million grant in export credits for the Central Asian countries to jump-start the said programme. This was finally implemented at the Moscow heads of government summit in 2005.

Moreover, the institutionalisation of the SCO Inter-Bank Cooperation and the SCO Business Council was accomplished. The Inter-Bank Cooperation was meant to facilitate bank transactions to realise smooth foreign investments whereas the Business Council aimed at assisting dialogue among core companies in the region. This move into the trade domain coincided with one of the most significant contemporary developments in the global economy in terms of re-integration of regional economies located along the Silk Road as well as promotion of trade ties between China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian countries. Hence, transport corridors from Southwestern China are being planned and incrementally executed through Central and South Asia. Pakistan is playing a lead role with respect to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The SCO was founded to realise regional peace and stability that, in turn, could act as catalysts for regional economic integration, industrial cooperation and market connectivity. With its expansion in 2017 where two South Asian countries, India and Pakistan, joined the organisation formally, the institutional character and outreach of the organisation seemed to have been expanded. Importantly, the expansion of the SCO into the South Asian region almost coincided with the inception, formalisation and projection of the BRI of which the CPEC is an integral component. The CPEC, formally launched in 2015, has entered its second phase where industrial, agricultural and technological cooperation between China and Pakistan has been prioritised by the two governments.

Domestically, the CPEC has gained political and social legitimacy. Regionally, however, it has been ‘unacceptable’ to India due to the latter’s claim to and control over major chunk of the state of Jammu and Kashmir legally, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. With respect to the resolution of Kashmir issue, in particular, and the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations in general, regional bodies like the SAARC and global organisations like the UNO have been largely ineffective.

In this context, the SCO has provided the two countries with an expanded platform to interact and generate trust, required on the one hand for institutional consolidation and effectiveness and on the other for economic integration and development.

As SCO members, India and Pakistan have interacted in terms of joint military exercises, sharing ideas on regional development and, importantly, building a regional roadmap to mitigate Covid-19 challenges. These are very important developments insofar as India-Pakistan relations are concerned because the two nuclear-armed states have often viewed each other in revisionist terms. The way they intact with each through the SCO is indeed interesting. India, currently holding the presidency of the organisation, has now invited Pakistan to attend the upcoming sessions of the SCO chief justices and foreign ministers to be held in India in March and May, respectively.

“Both India and Pakistan are members of the SCO. India is hosting the conference this year and as the chairman, it has sent an invitation. The invitation is being reviewed. A decision regarding participation in the meeting will be taken after due deliberation,” Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said.

Being an important member of the SCO as well as other regional and international organisations, Pakistan must attend such sessions to register its agency in terms of sharing its views on the subject matter. Foreign Minister Bhutto-Zardari has just concluded a visit to Moscow, Pakistan also enjoys cordial ties with Beijing. It is in Pakistan’s interest to actively participate in SCO meetings.

The visit by a Pakistani delegation will also send a positive signal to Indian policy makers and society. Nonetheless, the SCO is not the SAARC. Both India and Pakistan need to keep in mind its framework and ethos.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at

Recognising an opportunity