The two-day Belt and Road Forum (BRF), held in Beijing on May 14 and 15, to discuss the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative drew the attention of several major regional actors. President Xi Jinping stressed the economic significance of the initiative and PM Nawaz Sharif echoed his stance as he invited other countries to join CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and facilitate the development of South Asia. In his keynote address the Chinese President reaffirmed that the OBOR is free of political agenda, and is solely meant to increase cooperation and economic development across nations. Regardless, the strategic aspects of the OBOR are still likely to dominate popular discourse following the forum.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering President Xi has previously said that a stable and peaceful regional environment is necessary for the development of the project. In the same vein, China also offered to help Kabul in progress on the peace process in Afghanistan. Certainly, regional concerns like these put the strategic aspect of the project up for deliberation.
As the BRF came to an end, in an article by Shannon Tiezzi (“What Did China Accomplish at the Belt and Road Forum?”), she deemed the forum as, “more of a celebration of the project… than an expansion of its parameters or a serious consideration of the challenges that face the Belt and Road.”
The larger consensus seemed to be that the forum itself was rather “underwhelming”.
“In other words, the [Belt and Road Forum] was all about optics – the sheer number of attendees and agreements signed – rather than substance,” Tiezzi wrote.
What it did manage to do however was raise serious questions on the challenges and options open to nations that are expected to soon join the OBOR initiative—questions similar to those that are also likely to follow after the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June.
For Pakistan, participation in the SCO summit in Astana may mean having to juggle its geo-strategic considerations with its geo-economic concerns.
Pakistan may attempt to expand regional cooperation with other SCO states in fighting common security threats. Moreover, it is also likely to use this opportunity to expand trade cooperation by educating participating states of the economic potential of CPEC.
On the other hand, India and Afghanistan may use the summit as another opportunity to corner Pakistan, which can make progress for Pakistan in the summit difficult. Since India chose to boycott the forum in Beijing, it is difficult to determine whether the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers will meet on the sidelines of the SCO summit, especially now that both countries are close to becoming full members. Yet it can be expected that India will try to make up for its absence in the BRF through active participation in the SCO summit.
Despite India’s attempts to exhibit a country-wide indifference, several Indian policy analysts are vigorously debating the prospects of CPEC. In addition, the leadership of Indian-held Kashmir has come out and praised CPEC for being significant to economic connectivity with South and Central Asia.
Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister of Indian-held Kashmir, recently proposed building a corridor — similar to CPEC — between South Asia and Central Asia with Kashmir as its nucleus.
Although presently it seems impossible to materialize, India joining CPEC can certainly be within Pakistan’s interests. It can help relax the current strain in bilateral relations and open up new channels on various contentious issues, including the Kashmir issue.
Afghanistan will be relatively less difficult to engage economically, considering it has already shown an interest in joining CPEC. Pakistan can negotiate joint transit trade agreements with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. The extent to which Afghan participation in CPEC will help Pak-Afghan relations is however still tough to determine. Pakistan may not be able to promise lasting peace in Afghanistan, but it can facilitate the peace process, which may also improve Pakistan’s global image.
As for the upcoming SCO summit, given the current state of relations between India and Pakistan, the possibility of consensus within the SCO will most likely be restricted by the accession of both states. However, if the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan are to meet under the SCO umbrella or at the sidelines of the summit, it could be a major turning point in the prevailing atmosphere of hostility between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Whether the two states take advantage of this opportunity however remains to be seen.