Pakistan-India tensions: A test for SCO

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By Dr. Simbal Khan

Two years ago in 2017 when India and Pakistan simultaneously joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), many observers flagged the potential drawbacks of admitting the South Asian rivals to the security platform. The skepticism was not unfounded. After all, another once-promising regional body, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), was made redundant by a lack of cooperation and trust between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The upcoming 19th SCO heads of state summit slated to be held in Kyrgyzstan in June will prove to be a unique test. It will be a gauge of the organization’s ability to deliver on its goals and its wider significance to global peace and security as heads of state from India and Pakistan come together for the first time on a single platform post a heightened military stand-off earlier this year.

Today, it is abundantly clear that the SCO cannot be a meaningful regional security platform if it continues to shy away from addressing the serious conflicts among its own member states. In turn, Pakistan and India must question the utility of their participation in regional security forums such as SCO if they are unwilling to use these platforms for collective action, trust-building and redefining their bilateral relationship through diplomatic channels.

The SCO was established by China, Russia, and the Central Asian states in June 2001, just three months before the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC brought about a paradigm shift in international security. The main aim was to create a common platform for cooperation among regional states against non-traditional security challenges, in particular fighting the so-called ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. 
Now, as global power dynamics once again shift into multi-polarity, regional blocks built around common economic, security and political agendas have gained prominence. Against this backdrop, the SCO stands out as a unique geo-political platform and includes three of the world’s eminent powers: China, Russia and India.

Since its formation, the SCO has received only modest attention by the international community as the first multilateral regional body formed by China. But with India and Pakistan joining in, the organization transformed from a narrow regional grouping into the largest regional organization in the world, and one with a global profile.  In terms of its geographical coverage, SCO countries cover over 60 percent of the Eurasian landmass and almost half of the world’s population, with a collective GDP amounting to almost 25 percent of the global total. 
This expansion of the original SCO into South Asia however has not been without cost. Inherently, it has brought into the regional body some of South Asia’s most endemic geo-political security flaws.
The most recent India-Pakistan escalation of tensions was the first high-level military conflict between current SCO member states, triggered by a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in the Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir which killed 40 Indian soldiers and was claimed by Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed.
But immediately following the escalation, China and Russia offered mediation to both countries. Subsequently, Russia, in its engagement with both the countries to diffuse the crisis, proposed using the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) as a platform for mediation.
Last month however, newly appointed SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov addressed the two South Asian members directly and asked India and Pakistan to resolve their differences over the Pulwama attack bilaterally. 
His comments were an indication that the organization is not offering up its multilateral platform as a means to resolve the conflict, but expects member states to sort out their differences via bilateral mechanisms. Norov asserted that the participation of India and Pakistan in the security grouping could become “impossible” without a commitment to an “unconditional” fight against terrorism and separatism.
The world will be watching to see if Pakistan and India’s membership and participation in SCO can contribute to meaningfully reduce tensions, build mutual trust and change the nature of their bilateral relations. And unless the SCO serves to address the pressing security challenges arising from the danger of military conflict between its two nuclear-armed member states, its international credibility as a global actor will remain ever doubtful.

(Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years.

Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad.Twitter: @simbalkh)