SCO summit: India should use forum to corner Pakistan on cross-border terror, but China may play spoilsport

All eyes are on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held on 9-10 June in the Chinese city of Qingdao as it will witness the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi representing India as a full member-country. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full-time members into the SCO in the Astana summit held in Kazakhstan on 8-9 June 2017.

The last two decades have witnessed new strategic dynamics in the region, particularly the growing ties between Russia and China. Although Moscow-Beijing bonhomie is often attributed to recent sanctions on Russia imposed by the Western countries for President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, it is fundamentally a post-Cold War phenomenon that began to take shape with the transformation of the Shanghai Five – Russia, China, Khazkhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, with the addition of Uzbekistan as the sixth participant.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

The formation of the SCO coincided with the formation of an alliance-like partnership between Russia and China during the late 1990s. In a bid to take a more regional approach to the remaining border issues, the leaders of the five states met in Shanghai in 1996 and signed agreements on improving security relations. In June 2001, they expressed their commitment to set up a formal group, the SCO, which urged respect for state ‘sovereignty’ and ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of the member states. Admission of India and Pakistan in 2017 marked the first membership expansion of the SCO since its founding. It is being argued that the SCO’s expansion will infuse vigour into organisation’s future development while boosting its global standing and enhancing regional security. The grouping now represents more than 40 percent of the world’s population with 20 percent of its GDP.

India, the world’s largest democracy and Asia's third-largest economy, has conferred a new level of international legitimacy on the SCO. Expressing solidarity with the SCO’s pet theme, Indian envoy to Beijing has declared that "the need for multipolarity and multilateralism" will be the main message to come out of the Qingdao summit. There is no doubt that the US president Donald Trump has jettisoned many multilateral agreements, which was previously the hallmark of American global economic leadership. Although Trump has strengthened ties with India, his obsession with protectionism seems to have somewhat dampened New Delhi’s enthusiasm. On the other hand, China is trying to counter escalating tensions with the Trump administration by mending fences with India and Japan, both strong allies of the US. As the current tensions between Washington and Beijing require China to have a greater degree of interdependence with its neighbours, the SCO provides an important platform, with India’s prized participation, for opposing trade protectionism and unilateralism.

There is a mention of the word ‘democratic’ in the SCO’s founding document with reference to the need to establish "a democratic, fair, and rational new international political economic order." But it is believed to be primarily aimed at expressing Russian-Chinese disagreement with the US-dominated unipolar world order and their collective desire to work toward ‘multipolarity’. There is a dominant perception, notably in the Western world, that through the SCO, Russia and China have sought to defend their authoritarian regimes against any external criticisms.

Russia, which facilitated India’s entry, remains the most dependable ally in the SCO given New Delhi’s conventional hostility with Islamabad and long-existing differences with Beijing. A section of India’s strategic community may celebrate India’s diplomatic elevation as one of the “major players” of the SCO including China and Russia, but it remains unclear what tangible benefit this ‘promotion’ would bring for India other than causing some indignation in Pakistan. Other than getting a foothold in Central Asia, India’s other primary focus inside SCO has been to voice its grave concerns on the issue of terrorism. In fact, anti-terrorism resonates well with many of the SCO members, almost all of whom have been struggling with one or another form of Islamist terrorism within their borders.

In the Astana summit in 2017, Modi had spoken about the importance of coordinated efforts to counter terrorism and enhance connectivity without impinging on sovereignty, indirectly flagging India’s core concerns with China and Pakistan. Without naming any country, he made it clear that he was referring to India’s concerns about Pakistan-backed terror organisations. He had said that “terrorism is violation of human rights and basic human values...Whether it is the issue of radicalisation, recruitment of terrorists, their training and financing, unless we take coordinated and strong efforts, it is not possible to find a solution…I have full confidence that the India-SCO cooperation will give a new direction and strength to the fight against terrorism.” Modi’s remarks were significant as they came just after India boycotted the much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) summit, held in Beijing in May 2017, to highlight India’s persistent concerns over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s BRI initiative and passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Despite the SCO’s focus on consensus, New Delhi will not endorse the BRI. Though, China has also hit the right note by indicating that India not supporting the BRI will not be a problem in the SCO.

Pakistan’s admission adds to India’s potential difficulties with this forum. Despite China’s many verbal commitments, the chances of it putting real pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting cross-border terrorism remain doubtful. It is certainly in India’s interests if the SCO becomes a confidence-building mechanism between New Delhi and Islamabad, but these fears are not entirely unfounded that Beijing might use the SCO platform to pressurise New Delhi to negotiate with Islamabad on Kashmir issue in the guise of “good neighbourliness”. As Pakistan’s temptation to carry its baggage of hostility with India to the SCO would remain high, engaging Islamabad in this multilateral organisation will demand skilful diplomacy from the Modi government. Since the SAARC platform has not been successful due to several reasons including Pakistan’s obstinacy, the SCO as a body for regional cooperation provides a very different setting where Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China, is the dominant player. Although, the Modi government has been insisting that talks and terror cannot be held simultaneously, an Indian ‘technical team’ had recently toured Pakistan to discuss terrorism under the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure format. However, India will find it tough to make real contribution to the anti-terrorism format of the SCO given the requirement that intelligence must be shared with all members.

The Modi government is well aware of this reality that China is a hard nut to crack when it comes to Pakistan. China refuses to recognise either Masood Azhar or Hafiz Saeed as global terrorists. Therefore, getting the SCO to agree on anything meaningful regarding the source of terrorism targeting India is going to be a tricky task for Indian diplomacy. Although Beijing’s surprising move at the Financial Action Taken Force (FATF) in February plenary in Paris has given New Delhi some reasonable hope that China may be amenable to make a subtle shift in its stance with Pakistan. During that FATF meet, China along with Saudi Arabia had voted to greylist Pakistan for terror financing. It gave Islamabad four months to do more to rein in terrorist groups operating from its soil or face the consequences. But nothing concrete has happened so far. If blacklisted, Pakistan will join Iran and North Korea in a group of only three countries denied international financing. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have already fallen below $10 billion and an IMF bailout seems imminent. When the FATF meets at the end of June, Pakistan faces going onto a ‘greylist’. It therefore remains to be seen how smartly India plays its cards with China at Qingdao summit to put forth its message in unambiguous terms: those who back countries engaged in terror financing are also complicit.

It has been rightly argued that India’s participation in the SCO will help it further expand Indian footprints in Central Asia, a region which is abundant in energy resources. But the biggest problem is posed by geographical constraints as India has no land boundary with any Central Asian country. India’s land connectivity to the Central Asian region can be made possible through Pakistan, which continues to deny India access to the region. India’s geographical isolation is further compounded by the presence of two dominant powers – Russia and China – which leaves little space for a distant third power. New Delhi may have tried its best to find alternate routes, most notably by trying to construct a North-South Connectivity Corridor from Iranian port of Chabahar up to Central Asia through Afghanistan, the progress however remains excruciatingly slow. India needs to push other Central Asian Republics to make this route a reality, otherwise the SCO is likely to lose priority for the Indian diplomacy.

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2018 10:10 AM

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