The entry of South Asian neighbors India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) fold this week stands to affect the balance of global power in an emerging multi-polar world order.
The SCO’s expansion gives the grouping’s profile rather a large boost, with its territorial coverage now stretching from Russia in the north to the waters of the Indian Ocean in the south. The addition of another 1.5 billion people under its ambit means it now represents roughly half of humanity – and more than 25% of global GDP.
More importantly, it may also temper the Indian Subcontinent’s currently acrimonious atmosphere and offer an alternative narrative to that of Eurasian alliance with the West.
Aziz Ahmed Khan, an eminent strategic foreign policy expert and Pakistan’s former Additional Foreign Secretary, is of the opinion that reducing Indo-Pakistani bilateral tensions is critical to the SCO’s success in South Asia. “Resolving outstanding issues and moving toward a co-operative and mutually beneficial relationship will enable both Islamabad and New Delhi to exploit the SCO platform effectively […] contributing to regional peace, combating terrorism and working for the economic development of member-states, as per the organization’s mandate,” he says.
Meanwhile, Professor Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and renowned expert on Eurasian affairs, believes “the SCO [can] beget a gradual thawing of India–Pakistan tension, especially because of Beijing’s keen interest in a stable South Asia to realize the full potential of its One Belt One Road (Obor) project.”
While pointing out risks from the SCO getting bogged down in South Asian wrangling – for a start, New Delhi has consistently opposed external mediation – Stobdan advocates approaching regional concerns differently, by abandoning the habit of seeing the subcontinent through the prism of Indo-Pakistani hostility.
“Sharing several multilateral tables, anti-terrorism efforts, military exercises… all under the SCO framework: these may potentially change the regional climate in South Asia in many ways”
He also lists probable advantages to both countries of joining the SCO – including opportunities for joint counter-terror exercises and real-time coordination and sharing of intelligence. “Sharing several multilateral tables, anti-terrorism efforts, military exercises… all under the SCO framework: these may potentially change the regional climate in South Asia in many ways, thereby causing a positive impact on Indo-Pak relations” says Stobdan.
Professor Zhang Li, Director of Sichuan University’s Center of Afghan and Regional Security Studies, agrees. “[The] SCO will undoubtedly help India and Pakistan narrow their differences in perceiving some important regional issues, including terrorism, border management and physical connectivity […] increasing mutual trust and even reconciling their respective policy approaches to regional security challenges,” he asserts, while acknowledging that major obstacles such as the vexed question of Kashmir are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
So, can the SCO, whose members’ security architecture covers 60 per cent of Eurasia, be a global geopolitical game-changer? “With an enhanced geopolitical influence and expanded security role, the SCO can have a real strategic impact on the changing geopolitical and security landscape in South-Central Asia,” contends Li, adding, however, that it is likely to play a measured role in addressing security threats in a way that does not put it in direct confrontation with the West.
Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta-based journalist and columnist