NEIGHBOR Lost Opportunity
The prime ministers of Pakistan and India met on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Russia but the exchange was an opportunity wasted.
Diplomatic overtures between India and Pakistan are expected to reach new heights after both countries were accepted as full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July.
The SCO is a regional forum that facilitates limited, if not altogether exclusive, consultation on political, economic and military affairs. The Beijing-based forum comprises six countries – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Over the last ten years, India and Pakistan have enjoyed ‘observer status’ and will formally become members of the SCO in 2016.
The decision to include both countries in the grouping comes at an opportune moment when India and Pakistan are struggling to break past the surface and discuss the core issues that have created gridlocks in bilateral ties. However, the outcome of the initiative remains uncertain, as there are many concerns that have yet
to be addressed.
Both countries were fairly optimistic about being accepted as full members and even took a series of initiatives to show their enthusiasm. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s premier Nawaz Sharif decided to meet on the sidelines of the summit to test the waters and understand contentious issues that continue to be swept under the carpet.
However, bilateral relations cannot be improved through such initiatives as similar attempts in the past have invariably resulted in failure. The negative impact of politics and history can only be rectified if we wipe the slate clean and start all over again. Unfortunately, at this stage, the vested interests of the SCO countries and the failure to address the major sticking points between both countries are likely to throw a spanner in the works.
India and Pakistan’s inclusion in SCO adds diversity to a somewhat homogenous group of countries. In the past, the platform was frequently condemned for harboring an antiwestern agenda. With India and Pakistan as full members, the forum might expand it focus and grow into a more comprehensive body that also gives priority to South Asia’s concerns. However, this appears to be a long shot as the desire for diversity appears to be an attempt to allay doubts over SCO’s credibility and detract unwanted attention from the west.
Similarly, the Beijing-based forum seems to have dressed up the acceptance of both countries as full members as a solution to the disunity that prevails between India and Pakistan. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping has insisted SCO will play a pivotal role in improving bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. Overall, the SCO seems to have exaggerated its ability to bridge the gap that has existed between both countries for many decades.
Recently, the platform has been seen as a mouthpiece for China’s ambitions to control the region and improve security dynamics. Unfortunately, the decision to include India and China is little more than an extension of these goals. Since April 2015, China and Pakistan are chalking out a strategy to undertake the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. As a result, if Pakistan enjoys a privileged status in SCO, the project’s success is guaranteed. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vociferous welcome of Pakistan’s entry in the forum clearly indicates the significance of cooperation between both countries.
Meanwhile, the decision to include India in the forum comes across as an attempt to keep one’s enemies closer and cast aside the shadow of doubt that continues to weaken bilateral relations. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that India and Pakistan’s accession into the forum cannot bring any tangible benefit as substantive cooperation between both countries has come to a standstill. To the contrary, both countries are planning to further their own agenda through this platform. For Modi, the SCO serves as an opportunity to boost trade and combat militancy whereas Sharif has other plans that are likely to have drastic implications.
According to a statement issued by the PM House in Islamabad, Pakistan’s inclusion into the forum marked a “turning point” and could alter the geo- political landscape in the region. Sharif insisted all countries shared historical links and similar economic goals. However, the Pakistan premier voiced intentions of using the opportunity to enhance relations with Russia. In his first- ever meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Sharif said efforts must be made to strengthen ties in the field of trade, defence and cultural exchange.
The SCO’s purpose to establish common ground is unlikely to reach fruition as long as India and Pakistan continue to pursue disparate goals once they become full members of the forum.
The absence of a common agenda between both countries was apparent during Modi’s talks with Sharif on the sidelines of the summit. Political analysts believe the talks would serve as a litmus test to gauge the extent to which India-Pakistan relations could be salvaged. However, there was a range of issues which were not given due importance. As some analysts had suspected, the talks simply dealt with trivial concerns and did not make substantial headway in mending relations.
Shortly after the meeting, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said both leaders condemned militancy and vowed to cooperate with each other to eliminate the menace from South Asia. And yet, the prime minister’s failure to bring up the involvement of agencies based in India in militant activity across Pakistan added fuel to fire. Similarly, the failure to address the Kashmir issue or even broach the subject of India’s involvement in Balochistan also raised doubts.
Most politicians expressed mixed feelings about the talks. According to former interior minister Rehman Malik, it were small things - like Modi’s unwillingness to walk towards his counterpart - that made the talks undiplomatic. Other leaders such as Sherry Rehman claimed the prime minister’s inability to state and defend his country’s case reduced the effectiveness of the talks.
Whether it was an attempt to appease India or to adopt diplomatic silence to avoid conflicts of interest as SCO members, the talks on the sidelines of the summit showed that both countries are poles apart. Political analysts believe they momentarily broke the ice between both countries but the exchange was much too brief to generate a strong impact.
Overall, conflicting agendas and the failure to find a common ground will only exacerbate ties between India and Pakistan. No forum will be able to reconcile these differences unless there is an opportunity for a new beginning.
For Modi, the SCO serves as an opportunity to boost trade and combat militancy whereas Sharif has other plans that are likely to have drastic implications.