After prolong maneuvering and strategic diplomacy, Pakistan and India managed to become the formal members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with the Ufa summit in Russia in 2015, enabling the organisation to be an international actor that consists of four nuclear states. Out of them two, China and Russia, are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The SCO encompasses almost the entire Eurasian landscape, more than 90 percent of South Asia and China, the state with largest territory in East Asia. Significant attributes of the SCO also include more than two/fifth of the world’s population and the combined strength of troops supersedes the NATO.
The SCO, successor of the Shanghai Five mechanism, initiated and developed from the endeavour by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to strengthen confidence-building and to demilitarise borders in 1996, at present extended to reach eight members (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan); four observers (Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Belarus); and four dialogue partners (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, and Nepal). The organisation has broadened and extended the agenda to include increased military and counterterrorism cooperation, intelligence sharing and disarmament in the border regions to regional economic initiatives like the most debated and discussed Belt and Road initiative by China, and Russia-driven Eurasian Economic Union.
In this short memo, I argue that by offering membership to both Pakistan and India, Beijing and Moscow has paved the way for gradual rifts, and an eventual decline of organisation, as both the states of Pakistan and India have complementary interests to pursue within origination and their extended but divergent ties with two poles. Russia and China are more likely to create a divide to hamper the work of the organisation that is already less effective to deliver in real terms or counter balance its alleged rival, NATO. Furthermore, this contrast of interests is not merely confined to two poles, but also within sub-groups there are divergences. For instance, Moscow has reservation on New Delhi’s augmenting ties with the United States and the West in recent years.
Central Asia, the so-called extended neighbourhood of New Delhi, has been a temptation for the latter to have an access to Eurasian market and strategic presence in the region. The former appeared to have materialised easily with increased involvement in Chabahar of Iran, and the latter as an enhanced strategic capability to encircle Islamabad in crisis. It is an established fact that in late 1990s and early 2000s, India operated a military hospital at the Farkhor airbase (also known as the Ayni airbase and Gissar) outside of Dushanbe near the Afghan border. It was used to provide care to Northern Alliance fighters in 2002, and India reportedly flew cargo out of Farkhor, with Russian permission. Yet, New Delhi has failed to secure Moscow’s approval to maintain this facility, despite the fact that both have enjoyed cordial relations, and are traditionally considered close friends.
It can be argued that despite its lasting and endurable friendly ties with Moscow, and New Delhi’s quest for multiple partners to improve, advance, modernise and diversify the defence architecture, it has failed to retain Moscow’s trust, and it has left negative implications for the two as the relations are at a downward trend. The question arises how New Delhi will maneuver a better deal with Beijing, which has been an uneasy partner since the two states fought a brief but decisive war in 1962. Additionally, One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and particularly Gwadar port, is in divergence with India’s naval designs and its presence in the Indian Ocean.
Contrary to New Delhi, Islamabad has maintained relatively better ties with Moscow lately. Renaissance was on track from 2014 when the Kremlin waved off an arms embargo against Islamabad. Following these developments, Moscow broke an arms deal to sell four Mi-35M helicopters to Pakistan, and extended a warm welcome to Islamabad on latter’s entry to the SCO in 2015. Commander-in-Chief of Russian army, Oleg Salyukov, has recently announced that Russian ground forces would hold their first-ever military drills with Pakistan during 2016, in what is being billed as “special drills in mountainous terrain.”
This newly developing bonhomie between Russia and Pakistan has no strong roots in history; rather, both have been on confrontational terms as the latter was a frontline state when the former invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and prior to that, a U-2 spy plane flew from Peshawar — provincial capital of the then North West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — in the early phase of the Cold War. However, presently, Russia acknowledges and seeks out Pakistan’s cooperation in Central Asia to curb the challenge of extremism.
From Beijing’s point of view, Pakistan is a time-tested partner of peace, and a strategic ally. President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in April 2015 resulted in the signing of 51 agreements, with an approximate value of $46 billion, settling the base for CPEC, a flagship project of the OBOR initiative. The OBOR is aimed at promoting the economic prosperity of the countries along the belt and road, regional economic cooperation, strengthening exchanges, mutual learning between different civilisations and promoting world peace and development.
The proposed OBOR is believed to speed up the development of western China and the revival of the ancient Silk Route. The CPEC will not only increase the efficacy of trade potential for China but also bring fruitful results for Pakistan. Considering the geostrategic location of Pakistan, the CPEC connects the northern and southern parts of the OBOR. The premier exit of the People’s Liberation Army’s navy and the South China Sea is troublesome, and at the core of global focus. China through the Gwadar port will have access to two oceans. In such a scenario, Gwadar becomes strategically as well as commercially important for China.
It is a well-known and established fact that Islamabad and New Delhi have opposing interests in Central Asia, and both have been seeking these venues from different perspectives. The coherence and dedication for the objectives to achieve from the SCO platform is questionable when the organisation expends at the cost of internal frictions. The eventual disbandment of SEATO and CENTO was an outcome of opposite interests chased by the members.
The SCO has a bright future, and it has a major role to play but only if it sustains consistency towards its goals without internal divide. At present, Pakistan appears to be a justified member, however, inconsistency in Islamabad’s policies may have challenges in the future. India, on the other hand, shares nothing but confrontational interests with Beijing, both in short and long term scenario. Although New Delhi has been a close partner with Moscow, ample evidence is available to foresee the country’s future towards the western orientation.
The writer is a doctoral candidate of international relations at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, China