Diplomatic opening

April 30, 2023

Upcoming SCO moot has provided India and Pakistan, archrivals since decades, with an important platform to interact and generate trust

Diplomatic opening


he Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is going to hold its foreign minister level meeting in Goa, India, on May 4-5.

The SCO is an eight-member inter-governmental regional organisation headquartered in Beijing, China. India assumed the rotating presidency of the SCO at the 2022 summit held in Uzbekistan. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar is currently the chair of the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers. The other day, India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated that it had extended invitations to all member states of the SCO and “we look forward to a successful meeting. It would not be really appropriate to focus on participation by any one particular country.” While accepting the invitation as an SCO member, Pakistan’s Foreign Office said: “Our participation in the meeting reflects Pakistan’s commitment to the SCO Charter and processes and the importance that Pakistan accords to the region in its foreign policy priorities.”

This will be the first time a Pakistani foreign minister will be visiting India since 2016. Former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had attended Prime Minister Modi’s inaugural ceremony in 2014 and the latter had a stopover in Pakistan in 2015. Since 2016, bilateral relations have remained strained due to divergent positions on various issues including Jammu and Kashmir.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is the world’s largest regional organisation in terms of geographical expanse (covering around 60 percent of Eurasian landmass), population (40 percent of the world) and contributing about 30 percent of global GDP. Its formation can be contextualised with reference to the geostrategic dynamics of the Eurasian region after the end of the Cold War. The Russian Republic and its traditional partners, particularly from Central Asia, were concerned about their security since the foundation of the five Central Asian states was grounded in territorial nationalism. China, while sharing the security concerns, also joined hands with Russia and three Central Asian countries, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in terms of establishing the Shanghai Five group in 1996. In the Almaty Declaration made in 1998, it was agreed that the Shanghai Five would extend cooperation to combat ethnic separatism, religious fundamentalism, international terrorism, arms smuggling, narcotics and other cross-border criminal activities.

By the turn of the millennium, the then Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, had expressed his desire to transform this ad hoc forum into a regional organisation for realising multilateral cooperation. In 2001, with the inclusion of Uzbekistan as the sixth member, the Shanghai Five transitioned into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In 2005, India, Pakistan and Iran were given the observer status.

Diplomatic opening

This will be the first time since 2016 that such a senior Pakistani leaders will be visiting India. Former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had attended Prime Minister Modi’s inaugural ceremony in 2014 and the latter had a stopover in Pakistan in 2015. Since 2016, bilateral relations have remained strained due to divergent positions on various issues including Jammu and Kashmir. 

Since its establishment in 2001, the SCO has attracted a significant amount of attention due to its solid organisational capacity to deliberate and resolve issues through cooperation. Initially, the Shanghai Five and later the SCO were concerned more about border disputes among the member states and countering terrorism regionally. However, over the years, the SCO has also shown interest in, for example, trade facilitation. The idea of economic cooperation and trade promotion at the trans-regional level surfaced in the 1990s within the framework of the Shanghai Five. To further regional security and politico-economic cooperation, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was expanded with the addition of India and Pakistan as full members in 2017. It currently has four observers including Afghanistan and nine dialogue partners including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. In addition, the Unites Nations Organisation (UNO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), ASEAN and Turkmenistan attend as guests. Importantly, many other regional countries are willing to collaborate with the SCO. Iran will soon become a full member.

The SCO has provided India and Pakistan, archrivals for decades, with an important platform to interact and generate trust, required on the one hand for institutional consolidation and on the other for regional economic integration and growth. Being two important members of the organisation, India and Pakistan have, in recent years, interacted with each other in terms of joint military exercises, exchange of ideas on regional development and building a regional roadmap to mitigate Covid-19 challenges as well as countering climate catastrophes under the auspices of the SCO. These are some extraordinary developments insofar as India-Pakistan relations are concerned because the two nuclear-armed states have generally viewed each other antagonistically.

Diplomatic opening

Being an important member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well as other regional and international organisations, the government of Pakistan has taken a commendable decision to send a delegation led by Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who has communicated Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives quite candidly, both regionally and internationally. By attending the upcoming SCO session, Pakistan will, on the one hand, reiterate its role as a responsible member of the organisation and, on the other, as a leading Muslim country with strategic relations with China whose diplomatic clout is on the rise in trans-regional affairs. The Saudi-Iran détente is a case in point. Pakistan will also share the platform with other key members of the organisation such as Russia. Pakistan is interacting with the latter with the aim to develop bilateral trust. The foreign minister will also have an opportunity to greet his Indian counterpart. However, given the SCO framework, bilateral matters such as Jammu and Kashmir are not likely to be discussed. Nonetheless, the Pakistani delegation could raise issues of mutual concern such as terrorism. Climate justice too needs to be stressed since Pakistan along with other regional countries is suffering due to climate change. Besides, there is a need to address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan where more than half of the population is starving. Regional cooperation cannot not be realised until there is political stability in the SCO countries.

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 ejaz.bhatty@gmail.com

Diplomatic opening