Farzana Shaikh
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme
Expansion into South Asia comes with important benefits for the security bloc, but the old rivals could create as much turmoil as opportunity.
An Indian army soldier is silhouetted against the snow capped mountains of Pakistan-administered Kashmir as he guards the the line of control on 20 April 2015 in Gohalan. Photo by Getty Images.An Indian army soldier is silhouetted against the snow capped mountains of Pakistan-administered Kashmir as he guards the the line of control on 20 April 2015 in Gohalan. Photo by Getty Images.

India and Pakistan are expected to be simultaneously elevated to full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2016, as mooted at this week’s summit of the security bloc. SCO officials have described the move as a ‘constructive’ step that could improve bilateral relations and will see the two rivals become members of the same security bloc for the first time. (Both already have observer status at the SCO.) But their entrenched differences could cripple the SCO, and the organization’s decision-making, which is based on consensus, could face paralysis.

There are fertile grounds for pessimism. Recent months have witnessed a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries, triggered by clashes across the line of control in Kashmir and a bitter war of words over Pakistan’s handling of anti-India terrorists. The move to admit both countries at the same time also appears to endorse a ‘hyphenation’ approach which groups together policy towards India and Pakistan, something that causes consternation in both countries. The rivalry has crippled other regional bodies, notably the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.

The admission of India and Pakistan could also threaten the working of the SCO’s arrangements on security cooperation, especially relating to intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism programmes. With India and Pakistan trading daily accusations about each other’s covert role in stirring unrest across their borders, the prospects of a viable working relationship between the two sides look dim.

Membership gains

Nevertheless, the membership of India and Pakistan could bring some dividends for the SCO. Pakistan’s long-standing involvement in Afghan affairs and India’s emergence as a key player in the Afghan economy could improve the chances of stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. China, in particular, has taken an active role in stepping up its involvement in the region by indicating its willingness to contain any fallout from the drawdown of NATO troops. It has sponsored peace talks with the Taliban and is reported to have tightened surveillance to curb the spread of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia.

But it is Pakistan that stands to make the most immediate gains from its membership of the SCO.  Earlier this year it signed a series of landmark agreements with China, worth an estimated $46 billion, to secure investment for the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a network of roads, railways and pipelines that will connect the port of Gwadur in Pakistan’s southern province of Baluchistan to Kashgar in China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang.  Billed as an integral part of China’s ambitious Silk Road and Economic Belt initiative, it has been robustly endorsed by the SCO and is expected to cement Pakistan’s role as a vital regional hub in the economic development of Central Asia, which has a strong presence in the SCO – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are all members.

Pakistan has also moved to strengthen ties with Russia, ending several decades of frosty bilateral relations. In late 2014 it concluded a defence cooperation agreement with Russia – the first of its kind between the two countries – and announced plans to coordinate action against terrorism, illicit narcotics and arms trafficking. Seen at the time as an astute move by Pakistan to offset India’s deepening ties with the US, it now looks set to guarantee Pakistan a comfortable place as one of the SCO’s latest recruits.    

By contrast, India’s entry into the SCO could be more demanding. Not only has India grown closer to the United States at a time when relations between Russia and the US over Russian intervention in Ukraine are near breaking point, it has also angered China by publicly voicing opposition to aspects of China’s Silk Road project.

In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Beijing denounced the CPEC as ‘unacceptable’, claiming that it ran through parts of the disputed territory of Kashmir currently under Pakistani control.  India has also protested against Russia’s decision to lift the arms embargo on Pakistan on grounds that it compromised India’s security interests in the region.

Despite these reservations, however, India clearly understands that its membership of the SCO represents a crucial moment in its quest to forge closer links with the resource and energy-rich republics of Central Asia. Prime Minister Modi’s whirlwind tour of Central Asia ahead of the organization’s 9-10 July summit in the Russia city of Ufa was judiciously timed to exploit trade and investment opportunities, which are set to widen with India’s accession to the SCO.

Integral India

For its part, whatever the tensions between India and its individual members, the SCO must realize that if it is to develop as a regional alliance with enough clout to match the West’s global aspirations, it cannot afford to ignore India.

China’s active support for India’s membership of the SCO is testimony to this concern even if it risks displeasing Pakistan, which still holds to the idea of a privileged relationship with China.  Russia appears to be no less sensitive to these concerns, with some suggestions that Russia’s defence cooperation with Pakistan is merely an exercise to increase leverage over its old ally, India, and warn it against getting too close to the United States.

It is as yet far from clear whether the SCO has the wherewithal to manage this complex balance of forces. While the common interests of one-time foes – China and Russia – to resist a US-dominated world order may still hold the organization together, managing the delicate equilibrium involved in sustaining their South Asian partnerships will demand exceptionally high levels of diplomatic skill. Set against the persistently volatile balance between India and Pakistan, the SCO can expect some turbulent years ahead.

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