India and Pakistan will become full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the SCO Astana summit in June 2017. The groundwork for the inclusion of India and Pakistan was laid back in 2014 at the Dushanbe summit where the procedure to take in new members was finalized. The organization presently has Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members. The SCO’s official motive is facilitating cooperation on political, military and economic matters–though the latter two dominate.
The addition of India and Pakistan will expand the range of countries listed under the SCO umbrella and will mark a new stage in the development of cooperation within the organization.
However, it is still too soon to predict whether membership of the SCO can truly help improve bilateral ties between India and Pakistan, or whether it will just create conflict within the organization.
After all, the two countries come with considerable baggage.
Kulbhushan Jadhav’s sentencing by a Pakistani military court has brought India-Pakistan ties to the brink. The conviction of the Indian Navy officer turned RAW agent drew condemnation from across the border, with India going as far as calling the death sentence ‘premeditated murder.’ India-Pakistan relations have declined in recent months due to Modi’s hardline policy designed to put pressure and force a change in Pakistan’s stance on the jihadists and support for the Kashmir cause.
According to reports, as full members, Pakistan and India are expected to work together to improve bilateral ties and promote the interests of the SCO. This condition was discussed in detail and was one of the main reasons why PM Nawaz Sharif and PM Narendra Modi met in Ufa, Russia at the sidelines of the SCO summit in 2015.
Though it may not seem like India is in favor of holding talks with Pakistan at the moment, foreign policy analysts are arguing that New Delhi will have to eventually engage Islamabad whether it is on the current unrest in Kashmir or the more controversial Jhadav case.
Pakistan has called for increased ‘active diplomacy’ and is still looking forward to resuming bilateral dialogue with India. Countries in the SCO are also pushing Pakistan and India to re-engage in order to ensure that the upcoming summit is held in a relatively stable and sound environment.
China, for instance is optimistic that membership in the SCO will help build bridges between the two neighbors. The Chinese government has urged both countries to enhance mutual trust and improve relations through greater dialogue.
For China, the inclusion of both India and Pakistan will be evidence of the SCO’s inclusivity and openness—something that Beijing has for long talked about but has had little evidence to support. Including India in the SCO will put to rest the criticism China has been facing with the organization being called a “grouping of states with little affection for the Western world order”. Including a state that is not only the world’s largest democracy but one with which China is known to have a lot of disagreements may help China in changing the narrative.
Incorporating India and Pakistan alleviates fears of the SCO becoming a China-led NATO—a perception that has become louder with the existing military cooperation between SCO members.
It remains unclear how India and Pakistan will partake in the SCO’s counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing operations, especially considering the way bilateral relations are currently progressing. Indian and Pakistani troops participating in a joint SCO military exercise would be a ground-breaking event. The fact that the two are almost always at loggerheads over security issues however makes this an unlikely possibility.
Apart from opening up a much awaited door to bilateral talks with India, for Pakistan, membership in the SCO will also help build stronger ties with Russia and Central Asia; Pakistan and China already enjoy a solid strategic partnership.
But whether having India and Pakistan part of the SCO can bring a dynamic shift in their bilateral relationship still remains to be seen.
If India continues to uphold its hostile ‘Pakistan strategy’, the inclusion of both countries may instead complicate the decision-making process within the organization. At the same time, there is a chance that membership in the SCO could calm bilateral tensions, and provide an opportunity for India and Pakistan to move beyond contentious issues and learn to cooperate on matters of mutual interest. A structured dialogue is the only way to defuse tensions between the two. India must forsake its ‘no dialogue’ policy as it is the only way forward for Indo-Pak relations.