Modi in Qingdao: China and Russia See SCO as Pivot for India-Pakistan Entente

Though the SCO’s charter prohibits the raising of bilateral issues, Moscow and Beijing seem eager to make the organisation a pivot for closer India-Pakistan entente.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao which got underway June 9 is likely to take the grouping’s focus on regional diplomacy and security to a higher level. China already seems excited over India and Pakistan’s entry, with President Xi saying this has increased the SCO’s “potential for cooperation”, especially terror fighting capability.

The coordinated entry of India and Pakistan into a regional security body will be marketed as the SCO’s key achievement – something even Washington has been unable to accomplish. The addition of another 1.5 billion people provides fresh excitement, for the SCO will now represent the voice of three billion people – that’s half the world’s population.

The SCO was set up in 2001 and its membership today comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, India and Pakistan. Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus and Mongolia are observers.

Map of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation region. Observer states are shown in blue. Credit: Wikimedia

No explicit signs are in the offing, but Putin and Xi have a stake in offering to play an informal mediatory role between the two South Asian neighbours. Such a scenario looks premature at the moment but Russia and China know that the high-level and broad-based diplomatic and security interactions which take place at different levels under the SCO framework could bring about a positive change in the regional climate. President Xi recently said that the SCO is an ideal platform to turn the decades old hostility between India and Pakistan into friendship. 

Russia’s shift of policy towards Pakistan has been a nuanced one, with Moscow playing a balancing game without sacrificing its ties with traditional partner India.

Weapon sales aren’t the main consideration for Russia’s improved ties with Islamabad, but they do serve Moscow’s interest to work on the widening US-Pak mistrust – besides filling up the strategic space the US is vacating in a region that borders Central Asia. Given the continuing standoff with the West, closer ties with Islamabad adds to Russia’s foreign policy options. Also, Russian seem unwilling to leave Pakistan entirely to China and has been making efforts to extend its own influence over Islamabad.

Today, both Beijing and Moscow are visited frequently by the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, including by national security advisor Nasser Khan Janjua, army chief General Qamar Bajwa, foreign minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif and others.

Moscow plans to host the next military drills of SCO Peace Mission 2018 in the Urals in August/September, with the inclusion of both India and Pakistan. At the same time, it is clear that Moscow does not plan to use Islamabad against India, the way China tends to do.

Though the SCO’s charter prohibits the raising of bilateral issues, Moscow and Beijing seem eager to make the organisation a pivot for closer India-Pakistan entente. In fact, Beijing hosted the conference of SCO’s Security Council secretaries last month where President Xi received top Indian and Pakistani security officials.

On May 25, Pakistan hosted the SCO-RATS dialogue of legal experts in Islamabad to discuss ways and mean to tackle terror. This proved to be the first litmus test for Xi’s diplomacy as it meant getting officials from India and Pakistan in the same room to discuss terrorism.

For New Delhi, the “consultation in Islamabad was part of its commitment to fight terrorism” but Islamabad saw the legal experts meeting as a prime opportunity to portray itself as a victim, and not the fount, of terrorism. The Pakistanis spoke the about sacrifices they had made – $120 billion plus the lives of thousands of citizens and security personnel – in fighting against terror. They pleaded against identifying terrorism with any religion or country. Not just that, Pakistan offered to share its vast experiences of winning terror battles with fellow SCO states.

The grouping, in fact, does provide a rare opportunity for the militaries of member states to engage in joint military drills where they coordinate on operational details and share intelligence.

Thanks to the SCO, in the coming months, Indian and Pakistani troops participated in the ‘Fanfare for Peace Military Tattoo’ in China and will join ‘Peace Mission 2018’, the  joint counter terrorism drill to be held in the Urals.

At the Astana summit last year, when India and Pakistan were formally inducted as members, the SCO adopted an “anti-extremism treaty” document which awaits approval. The aim is to draw up measures to prevent youth from turning to extremism deepen exchanges, hold joint exercises, foster military culture, education and the training of security agencies.

A call to pledge strict adherence to the SCO charter on “Long-Term Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation” would aim to bind the two new members – India and Pakistan – to the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ through a five-year action plan that runs till 2022. Both South Asian countries will commit to “strictly follow” the spirit of “good-neighbourliness” prescribed in Article 1 of SCO’s charter.

CPEC’s long shadow

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) still remains the elephant in the room, but Beijing has recently refrained from making any direct comment on Pakistan’s May 21 decision to approve the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 – seen as a step in the direction of incorporating the region as the country’s fifth province. The Chinese official position is that the Kashmir dispute should be resolved through “dialogue and consultation” and that CPEC will not affect China’s stand on the Kashmir issue.

So far, India has stood by its position that “talks and terrorism can’t go together”. Yet if recent developments are anything to go by, terrorism and ‘consultations’ seem possible if not through bilateral parleys then through multilateral means via the SCO calendar of meetings.

Quite clearly, Prime Minister Modi’s back-to-back “informal” summit diplomacy with President Putin and President Xi at Wuhan and Sochi was not only aimed at finding a common ground at the trilateral level but also at looking for ways to roll out a fresh engagement process between India and Pakistan. Meaningful engagement will likely await at least the results of the Pakistani general election next month if not India’s own in May 2019 but the possibility of Modi talking to the caretaker Pakistani prime minister, Nasir-Ul-Mulk, in Qingdao can’t be ruled out.

In a significant breakthrough the militaries of India and Pakistan at the DGMO level agreed last month to fully remain committed to the ceasefire understanding of 2003 in letter and spirit.

This was followed by New Delhi’s “ceasefire” announcement on May 16 to suspend offensive operations in Kashmir during the month of Ramzan. Union home minister Rajnath Singh has also shown interest in holding a dialogue with Kashmiri separatists including the Hurriyat. The separatists initially showed their keenness to join peace talks provided ‘Indian leadership speaks in one voice and with clarity.

A complicating factor, of course, is that the situation in the Valley has been worsening over the past year, which means militancy appears once again to have taken indigenous roots and may not be fully amenable to Pakistani control.

Clearly, the SCO is becoming a pivoting point for entente between India, Pakistan and China. In fact, the recent reciprocal moves made by all sides provide some interesting possible indicators.

It is also clear that China enjoys greater leverage over the terror machine in Pakistan than the US does – a fact admitted even by Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton. New Delhi cannot rule out this fact while dealing with Beijing on security.

P. Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, is an expert on Himalayan and Inner Asian affairs.