As Pakistan cozies up to China and Russia, it receives a warm welcome. However, making new friends will undoubtedly take some work.
Pakistan will have a tough time making new friends
The 12th meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), recently held in Beijing, was a big leap forward on the path to regional assertiveness on issues pertaining to the broader South Asian region. The need for a regional approach towards outstanding problems became more important following the reiteration of the US strategy of an “irreversible transition of full security responsibility from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)…for completion by the end of 2014,” during the NATO Chicago summit in May.
While Afghanistan holds an observer status in the moot, a regional approach to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and long-term stability was emphasized. “We will continue to manage our regional affairs by ourselves, guarding against shocks from turbulence outside the region, and will play a bigger role in Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction,” Chinese President, Hu Jintao, stated during an interview given on the sidelines of the summit. The SCO has clearly enhanced its role over time and by acknowledging its responsibility towards Afghanistan in the context of NATO’s withdrawal from the country, it has amply demonstrated that it is eyeing a bigger role for peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
Afghanistan is not the only factor preoccupying the minds of the decision-makers in China and Russia, the two major players in SCO (other members include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; while India, Mongolia, Pakistan, and now Afghanistan hold observer status). Increasing concerns shown by Washington regarding the recent Philippine
claims over the Chinese Huangyan Island and America’s planned naval shift towards the Pacific Ocean by 2020, are sources of anxiety for Beijing. On the other hand, Moscow has its own worries vis-à-vis NATO, such as its pursuit of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. Similarly, both Beijing and Moscow are neither enthused about U.S. tendency to militarily intervene in other countries to introduce a regime change nor too comfortable with its confrontational posture towards Iran.
A few days prior to the SCO summit, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta confirmed the shifting of the U.S. military pivot towards the Pacific during the eleventh annual Shangri La Dialogue held in Singapore under the auspices of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “Make no mistake, the United States military is bringing enhanced capabilities to this vital region,” said Panetta. Not amused by U.S. bravado, the Chinese termed the shift of the bulk of U.S. navy towards the Pacific as ‘untimely.’ In such a backdrop, the SCO summit and its call for “strengthening communication, coordination, and cooperation in dealing with major international and regional issues,” was anything but untimely.
Besides the expression of a collective aspiration for a greater regional and international role, the SCO summit was a good opportunity for enhancing bilateral cooperation amongst members and observer states. China and Afghanistan established a strategic partnership on the sidelines of the SCO summit. The Chinese have signed agreements to develop Afghanistan’s mineral resources post-2014, while the Russians have shown interest in reconstructing the Salang highway that connects Afghanistan with Central Asia. Pakistan also used the opportunity to push the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project during President Zardari’s meeting with Iranian President, Ahmedinejad. The two leaders, who also met on the sidelines of the Summit, stressed upon the early completion of the already agreed projects such as the construction of NushkiDalbandin road, the upgradation of the Quetta-Taftan railway track and electricity project. In a private meeting with President Jintao, President Zardari also sought Chinese cooperation in energy and infrastructure projects and discussed the need to increase the volume of bilateral trade.
Although neither India nor Pakistan was given full-membership status during the Summit, the contrasting keenness of the two countries was illustrated through the absence of the Indian head of state from the Council of Heads of Member States of the organization. It is obvious that China and Russia are interested in projecting their regional foreign policy through the SCO platform in competition, if not in confrontation, with the U.S. and NATO. Keeping in view the recent Indian tilt towards the U.S., Pakistan has a window of opportunity to realign its foreign policy towards China and Russia, which could be best achieved through full-membership and an active participation in the SCO.
Seizing the moment, President Zardari announced a proposition to hold an international conference on narcotics in Islamabad. Incidentally, narcotics production and trafficking is one of the major concerns of the SCO. More importantly, Pakistan will have to tackle the problem of religious extremism and terrorism for endearing itself to Beijing and Moscow. The SCO originated out of the 2001 Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism. Consequently, Article 1 of the SCO charter calls on member states “to jointly counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations, to fight against illicit narcotics and arms trafficking and other types of criminal activity of a transnational character, and also illegal migration.”
While Pakistan seeks allies other than the U.S. and NATO, its role in countering terrorism and religious extremism will serve as a key determinant in identifying Pakistan’s future with the SCO. On the other hand, Pakistan could certainly secure some diplomatic mileage through SCO’s combining of terrorism and extremism with separatism in the same sentence in Article 1 of its charter. Aarish U. Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies.