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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Taha Ke­har

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.

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