The SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, this month is over. Pakistan, along with India, has been admitted as a full member (from the earlier observer status), making the SCO an eight-member body. The SCO leaders have hailed Pakistan’s entry as carrying “historic significance”.
So what will be the SCO ride like for Pakistan? And how is Pakistan likely to surmount the challenges and take advantages of the opportunities that come its way?
The SCO membership allows Pakistan to deal with its issues with India and Afghanistan under the SCO treaty on a long-term good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation, which is the second most important document after the SCO charter. It offers options to increase trade and improve bilateral relations with previously ignored Eurasian countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia.
It also takes the existing all-weather relationship with China to new levels. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is already included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a flagship project. The SCO membership upgrade could cement these ties.
Let’s discuss the challenges now.
Pakistan could prove to be a problematic poster child for the SCO. How?
There is a fundamental difference between the existing six members and the new two. Leading the SCO six and achieving short-term goals was easy, given strong central leaders in these countries and their form of governments whatever you may call them. The two new member species are democracies, one of which – Pakistan – is very fragile.
Knowing our fragility, China conveyed their desirable outcome even before the Astana summit. Speaking at a briefing in Beijing on June 1, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said China hoped Pakistan and India would improve bilateral relations after becoming full members of the SCO. “We hope that Pakistan and India will inject new impetus to the development of the SCO.”
Building up to the Astana summit, look what happened on all fronts within a fortnight:
Afghanistan: Kabul was hit by one of the worst suicide attacks in recent years killing at least 150 people. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted: “Pakistan continues to host terrorist sanctuaries” and that it “still believes that sponsoring terror is a controllable tool that can be switched on and off as part of the means to achieve goals.” That was a huge accusation.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Astana Summit made an attempt to find a way forward to repair trust with Afghanistan, which has an observer status in the SCO. Both sides agreed to use the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) mechanism in addition to bilateral meetings. The QCG includes China, US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is work in progress.
India: Tensions mounted along the Line of Control (LoC) with India. Only a day after the Astana summit, Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited troops after reported LoC violations, and a day later Pakistan’s Foreign Office summoned the Indian deputy high commissioner to lodge its protest.
It was in this backdrop that in spite of being under one roof, both Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, could not go beyond customary greetings and have a one-on-one or a bilateral meeting. An opportunity wasted.
China: A week before the Astana summit, the kidnapping of two Chinese nationals in Quetta and their reported killing (the Islamic State’s announcement of their murder came around the time the summit was in progress) would have put Chinese President Xi Jinping and Sharif in an awkward position during the customary farewell calls. The Indian media had a field day when they claimed Xi snubbed Pakistan’s prime minister and skipped a meeting with him because he was outraged by the killing.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry described the reports as “utter nonsense” and an editorial in China’s state-run Global Times also clarified that the two Chinese were recruited by South Korean missionaries and sent to Pakistan to conduct missionary work in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province where several CPEC projects including Gwadar Port are planned. However, this could strain the relationship between the two iron-friends. Not a good news when the only neighbour happy with Pakistan is China.
Perhaps this is what Xi Jinping had referred to in his opening address at Astana: “Recent acts of terrorism in this region show that the fight against three forces (of terrorism, separatism and extremism) remains a long and arduous task.”
Russia: (This is on a less worrying note.) Pakistan is warming up to Russia and trying to increase trade volumes with it. However, in Sharif’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Putin, both sides acknowledged that they could not take the volumes to the level they had hoped for since they had met in Ufa during the SCO Summit in 2015.
The challenges for Pakistan are compounded even more when seen in the light of domestic politics. For months, Sharif’s position has weakened because of a joint investigative team (JIT) – set up by Pakistan’s top court – probing into the Panama Papers case which names two of his sons for having offshore assets. The premier appeared before the JIT on June 15 as a witness and going by his media talks, he is defiant.
The Pakistani prime minister’s four years have been marred by domestic wrangling and he could pay very little attention to more significant issues facing Pakistan, including regional aspirations or ties with neighbours, much also because Pakistan’s foreign policy is run by a powerful military. Pakistan’s media and politics duo (coupled with militants wreaking havoc on a fragile Pakistan) could be blamed for much of the loss of opportunities that come Pakistan’s way. Take the timelines of the SCO and China for example:
In 2014, the Chinese President Xi Jinping could not visit Pakistan because of a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) sit-in led by Imran Khan.
In June 2015, when the SCO Summit took place in Ufa, Russia, no Pakistani media accompanied Sharif where he met the Indian prime minister in addition to the Russian and Chinese presidents. In Ufa, Pakistan’s full membership to the SCO was approved for further paperwork. It was also at the very summit that President Xi broke to the world that CPEC had reached the stage of implementation. So the news, which should have come from APP or PTV, came from Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.
In November 2016, PM Nawaz had to cancel his participation in the SCO Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, at the last moment because of a November 2 lockdown of Islamabad announced by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
In May 2017, when Sharif and his four chief ministers were in Beijing for China’s Belt and Road Forum being attended by some 29 foreign heads of state, 10 people were killed in Gwadar and the Senate deputy chairman’s convoy was attacked in Balochistan. Gwadar and Balochistan were the two keywords that would have featured on Sharif’s proud speech in Beijing, highlighting progress on CPEC. The opportunity was turned into a tragedy.
So will Pakistan be able to benefit from the SCO framework to improve the economic opportunities for its millions of poor people? How will the relationships with neighbours reshape for better after Pakistan’s SCO membership is upgraded? And, will Pakistan’s politicians and media behave differently now that we are in a different league?
The jury is still out.
Wali Zahid is President Institute of Media & Communication Pakistan and an award-winning journalist. He is Pakistan futurist and a longtime China-watcher. He tweets @walizahid.
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