India and Pakistan Join the SCO

Spearhead Analysis – 15.08.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The entry of Pakistan and India in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) marks a new phase in the SCO’s development. The recent entries’ agreement to work together was met with varying levels of hopeful optimism. Several Chinese analysts argued this could be the beginning of a long-overdue peacemaking process between the two estranged neighbors.

Yet, any optimism voiced over this development is in danger of overlooking the awaiting difficulties that the accession of the two will likely bring to the floor.

China and Russia have pushed for a greater, more decisive role on a global level though the SCO. With Pakistan and India now in the picture, this goal may have been complicated.

With two pugnacious neighbors now in the picture, it would be sensible for China to gear up for a greater level of discord than the SCO is used to. The SCO’s established framework and its general effectiveness may be brought into question. The accession of both countries is going to make finding common ground in the decision-making process more complex. The SCO may face an increase in the frequency of hold-ups and disruptions, crippling the otherwise smooth forward-going momentum set under the ‘SCO development strategy toward 2025’. For an organization that is accustomed to a coordinated and conflict-free environment this is going to be no less of an adjustment.

While China and Pakistan enjoy cozy relationship, India-China relations have taken a significantly disparate route. China’s ever-growing closeness with Pakistan, India hosting the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama on a contested stretch of land on the India-China border and border disputes between India and China, have all exacerbated the once relatively steady and simmering tensions in the India-China relationship.

The standoff at Doklam began with China’s decision to build a road on territory also claimed by Bhutan. The Chinese construction project led to widespread protests, which subsequently attracted Indian interest. Ever since, India has decided to increase troops in the area and has also made a statement calling out China for violating the Doklam Plateau status quo agreement. As troops from both sides of the border stare each other down, Chinese media outlets continue to issue ultimatums to New Delhi pushing for a withdrawal of Indian troops from the land.

Distrust looms large in the maritime domain as well. Owing to China’s strategic growth in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has increased focus on its strategy concerning the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, which it believes can counter Chinese influence in the region.

There is an increased level of geopolitical competition between the two Asia Giants. Added to that, the two also differ in their approaches to counter-terrorism. India has always been critical of Pak-China closeness but the growth in Chinese presence and influence on the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean over the past decade has added a new layer of friction to the cold peace governing India-China relations. The increased volatility in the India-China relationship will likely translate in the SCO meetings and discussions, in incalculable ways.

Chariness over India’s entry voiced in some political circles then is understandable. Beijing has a lot to take into account.

New Delhi boycotted the Belt and Road Forum held in May. India remains opposed to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor based on its claims to Gilgit-Baltistan, and continues to press China into recognizing India’s objections to the CPEC route. According to India the project is not being run in a manner that respects its sovereignty or territorial integrity. PM Narendra Modi reiterated New Delhi’s grievances and objections in his acceptance speech at the SCO summit in June. New Delhi is likely to continue to try to persuade, now within the realms of the SCO as well. The SCO provides a public platform for all member states to voice concerns in case any development does not serve the interests of all member states. And India is unlikely to hold back—whether it is concerning CPEC or the Pak-China relations India has been clear in its stance. The SCO provides India another opportunity to be louder and address a larger audience.

Historically, the India-Pakistan relationship has been rocky. Both countries may on occasion use the SCO stage to ‘settle debts’ or criticize one another. As part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, India has boycotted a summit in Islamabad after an alleged Pakistan-backed terrorist attack on its army base. Even with a ban on debating bilateral issues, SAARC has on numerous occasions been party to India-Pakistan conflicts and issue resolution. Beijing may be able to keep its long-term ally Islamabad in check, but the same cannot be said for New Delhi.

To secure a stronger foothold within the group India may feel inclined to sponsor Afghanistan and have it move from observer status to trying for full SCO membership. Beijing has so far managed to stay out of commenting on Pakistan’s alleged role in supporting terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Having Afghanistan in the loop, India could perhaps push forward its agenda on the Afghan crisis through the SCO as well.

China has played a central role in laying the foundations for the SCO. India and Pakistan’s entry into the SCO is going to be no less of a challenge for Beijing. However, owing to its status in the organization and its interest in securing stability within the SCO it is likely that China will focus all efforts towards ensuring the organization’s values are not undermined.

So far, China is doing a fairly decent job as mediator. On being asked about the anticipated role of the SCO in the India-Pakistan’s relationship China’s spokesperson, Hua Chunying said: “I see the journalist from Pakistan sit right here, while journalists from India sit over there. Maybe someday you can sit closer to each other.”