Pakistan's intransigence, anti-India mentality undermines SCO's agenda, erodes SAARC's credibility

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj urged the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member states to jointly address the challenge of terrorism and promote regional connectivity during her address at the SCO's Council of Heads of Government (CHG). Speaking during the same SCO meeting, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi praised his country's “largest and most effective counter-terrorism operations” in recent years and offered to share Pakistan’s expertise in combating terrorism through SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). Qureshi’s offer is as amusing as it is ridiculous.

Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi addresses the 73rd session of the UNGA. AP

Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi addresses the 73rd session of the UNGA. AP

It needs to be recalled that this is the second CHG meeting since India became a full member of the SCO in June 2017, along with Pakistan. There is no doubt that SCO has opened for India huge possibilities for greater regional cooperation on countering terrorism while placating the conflict zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most importantly, SCO has also offered a unique platform to construct sustained high-level engagement with Central Asian republics, while minimising the trust deficit with China and reinforcing the traditional cooperative engagement with Russia. At the same time, India’s entry into SCO has increased the grouping’s heft in regional geopolitics and trade negotiations.

But as suspected, there are serious concerns that Pakistan will try hard to undermine the SCO, and force it to lose its focus. Qureshi suggested an SCO-wide mechanism to conduct trade along with a proposal to adopt an “SCO wide visa regime” for businessmen. He also suggested exploring the feasibility of a “joint SCO airline.” Actually, Qureshi represents a civilian government which is led by a leader who has risen to power on the shoulders of Pakistan’s security establishment. Imran Khan has been elected prime minister because of the military’s determination to get rid of Nawaz Sharif. Thus, Imran will be guided primarily by the military’s preferences on Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s security establishment’s speciality is to slip deeply divisive and dangerous ideas inside a wrapping that is as genuine as possible. On the surface, Qureshi’s suggestions may seem attractive and positive, but they hide an ominous reality. What Qureshi will never disclose is that any diplomatic engagement that Pakistan seeks with India is part of a package deal that also includes State-sponsored terrorism. Through sheer propaganda and deception, Pakistan wants the whole world to believe that India is responsible for a lack of progress on conflict resolution as well as regional connectivity. New Delhi is projected as using its conventional military advantage to keep Pakistan weak.

Anyone familiar with the geopolitics of South Asia can easily tell that the deepening crisis of credibility that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) faces today is primarily due to Pakistan’s intransigence and anti-India mentality. And India is not the only country which is having troubles dealing with Pakistan. Due to Pakistan’s constant interference, Afghanistan has witnessed political instability and internal fighting for the last four decades.

But despite repeated attempts, the Afghan government has been unable to make a fresh beginning in its relations with Pakistan. And Islamabad’s ties with Dhaka have been in a state of deep freeze for a long time. It is time to call Qureshi’s bluff on his desire for enhanced regional trade and economic engagement. One needs to remember that India and Pakistan are signatories to the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and Pakistan is the only country which has not implemented this agreement.

But India is not shedding tears for SAARC; it is trying to deepen cooperation through the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) and reactivating the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) forum that brings the BBIN countries with Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. However, what is really worrying is that after undermining the SAARC, Pakistan now wants to hijack the SCO for its geopolitical machinations.

Before offering to share Pakistan’s so-called expertise on counter-terrorism, why did Qureshi not state in the SCO meeting that a delegation of the Asia Pacific Group (APG) just told Pakistan to do more in order to get out of the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)? The group members found Pakistan’s legal framework insufficient and the institutional arrangements weak in the fight against terrorism. The delegation believes the set-up for scrutinising the activities of non-profit organisations, brokerage houses, exchange companies and donations of corporate entities was not robust.

The cross-border movement of currency by the UN designated terror groups, including 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and its affiliates was among the four key areas of concerns that became the base for placing Pakistan on the FATF’s grey list. In June, Pakistan was forced to make a high-level commitment to work with the APG and the FATF to strengthen its Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) regime by implementing the action plan.

Without successful implementation of the plan and its verification, Pakistan cannot be removed from the grey list. Being on the grey list will surely hurt Pakistan’s economy as well as its international standing since it faces the risk of being downgraded by multilateral lenders such as the IMF, the World Bank and the ADB.

Before offering his wisdom about the SCO-wide trade connectivity, why dud Qureshi not inform the SCO gathering that his country has not allowed Indian goods to be transported to Afghanistan through its territory? On the sidelines of the India-Afghanistan Trade and Investment held in Mumbai last month, United States ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass reportedly said: “Increased trade in both directions, increased connectivity through central and South Asia through Afghanistan: those are all missed opportunities if Pakistan has its sole focus on perpetuating the status quo.”

Not only the US, but Russia has also stressed the need to open up land routes between Central and South Asia. It is about time Pakistan seriously thought allowing transit trade between Afghanistan and India. Without reorienting its thinking from geo-security to geo-economics, Pakistan cannot hope to reap economic benefits arising out of SCO. Leaving strategic manoeuvrings behind, Pakistan should take concrete steps to position itself as a regional trade and transit hub by facilitating India’s land connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

This will offer Pakistan huge economic benefits, while fostering genuine economic interdependence between India and Pakistan. Surely, this is the only shortcut to Pakistan’s long-term economic survival and political success. But this requires serious internal debate and subsequent transformation of Pakistan’s founding vision. And today’s Pakistan seems utterly incapable of doing that.

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Updated Date: Oct 13, 2018 17:22:05 IST

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