June 2017 witnessed an important international event. Arch rivals India and Pakistan became full members of Shanghai Conference Organization (SCO). Joining the organization implies a question-…does Indo-Pak line-up promise following the spirit of Shanghai? Indo-Pak rivalry has already buried SAARC, almost so, though last rites remain to be performed. If downsizing Indo-Pak relations continues at the present pace, SAARC may remain to be, barely in name. In such a scenario, what are they going to bring to SCO table? SCO is a combine of China, Russia and Central Asian States. Its formation was announced on June, the 15th 2001 in Shanghai. Hosted by China, leaders from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan joined the party. It is projected to be a Eurasian political, economic and security organization.
With India and Pakistan becoming full members, the Eurasian concept embraces South Asia. The widened line-up might be a good omen, but could be knotty too, given the Indo-Pak spat. The question remains—could the organization be expected to manage Indo-Pak contradictions, while making efforts to get South Asia on board the Eurasian concept? Some thought must have gone into it, before India and Pakistan were enrolled as full members. It stands related that word has already been conveyed that India and Pakistan would do well to keep their spat outside SCO.
Indian dream of isolating Pakistan seems to have taken backstage, as India signed-up along with Pakistan as a member of same organization. Apart from managing Indo-Pak contradiction, Sino-Indian differences too could impact SCO. It may not be forgotten that just before India lined-up to join, it skipped the Belt Road Forum—China's grand show in Beijing, where 29 heads of states and scores of delegations from international community were present, including leading business forums. India stated squarely its concern on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) labelling it as touching its sovereignty. India lays claim on JK State across LoC divide, and that includes Gilgit-Baltistan through which CPEC passes. China has skipped Indian objections by branding CPEC an economic enterprise meant for regional connectivity. India however continues to stick to its stand, despite Russia indicating its preference for 'Belt Road initiative (BRI)' the new denomination of 'One Belt One Road (OBOR)' and by implication support for CPEC.
Given the differences, it could be asked why SCO welcomed India to full membership? Obviously, India continues to be the major buyer of Russian armament. And, armament continues to be Russia's major export, hence the Russian embrace of India. However, in its approach to a multi-polar world, Russia has chosen to cultivate Pakistan, given its geostrategic location and its willingness to embrace BRI and Eurasian concept. Pakistan stands to provide a much easier maritime access to landlocked Central Asia than the cold water Russian ports, an access that even Russian could be tempted to use. Russian foray in Afghanistan in 80's of 20th century had a similar purpose—access to warm waters of Gulf. In recent years Russia has been increasing cooperation with Pakistan. There is a planned spurt in trade from almost negligible figures in the past, along with enhanced strategic partnership.
Russia while pursuing her new comfort level with Pakistan seeks to soothe Indian fears of deepening relationship with Pakistan. Lately, dismissing Indian fears over growing Russia-Pakistan relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin told PTI that while his country had a "deep cooperation" with India; it could not preclude ties with other countries. It came with an assertion that relationship between the two countries "cannot be diluted." However, it is a poor comfort. New Delhi is eyeing with concern, Russia's growing relations with Pakistan, exchange of security visits as well. There was a definite edge in Russian reaction, as Putin refused to take sides on Kashmir, saying it was not for him to decide whether Pakistan was fuelling terrorism in India-held Kashmir.
Russia while refusing to take sides on Kashmir remains worried about Afghan situation, the rise of ISIS especially, so close to her borders. On April, the 3rd barely two months back, PTI quoted Express Tribune as relating, "These fears have now opened up the possibility of an alliance between Pakistan, Russia and China in an unprecedented development that will shape the future of this volatile region.'' Moscow's concern is noticeable, as Russia has hosted a few strategic meets to address the issue. The variance in view of regional states—Russia, China and Pakistan from how India views the situation is noticeable. India's strategic partnership with USA might be a sore point, however Indian membership of SCO points out that Russians and Chinese want to keep India glued to regional concerns, in spite of differences of perception. Like Russia, India is China's major trade partner.
SCO is hardly SAARC where India could arm twist countries to isolate Pakistan. SCO is a different ball game. The organization might not take Indo-Pak spat, however it would take some effort to contain the spat. In various jottings of Russian strategic thinkers, while Russia remains on reasonable footing to manage Sino-Indian contradictions, managing Indo-Pak spat is taken to be a much tougher proposition. In SCO, so much may hinge on Indian reservations on BRI and open opposition to CPEC. SCO—the spirit of Shanghai revolves on Eurasian commitment and the akin concern—BRI, by implication CPEC—its vital limb. It poses the question-could India live with it?
Yaar Zinda, Sohbat Baqi [Reunion is subordinate to survival]
(The author is doctor in medicine, a social activist, and a senior columnist)