Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan, to attend the two-day seventeenth heads of government meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on 8th June during which Pakistan and India were formally granted full membership. Pakistan’s membership (as well as India’s) was a part of a process, from Observer status to full membership upon request in 2010, and due to a founding member’s support – China for Pakistan and Russia for India.
SCO’s precursor, the Shanghai Five comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and was set up in April 1996; SCO was created in 2001 and included an additional member – Uzbekistan. Now with the addition of India and Pakistan total membership has risen to eight. The big two notably China and Russia signed a bilateral strategic partnership agreement in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions by the West that accounts for extremely high profile deals between the two countries including the merger of Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), joint development of a long haul jet to challenge Boeing and Airbus as well as establishing a rating agency to rival Western agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s. And Pakistan’s relevance to the BRI is significant as indicated by the over 50 billion dollar projects envisaged under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Sino-Russian growing cooperation in all fields, including foreign relations in the strategic partnership and in SCO (where foreign ministers meet regularly to discuss the current international situation and the SCO’s interaction with other international organisations) is being viewed in Western capitals with increasing concern as it is argued that it rivals the Western institutions, a claim that is supported, according to political pundits, by the advent of the Trump administration challenging existing Western security and trade alliances.
What is critical from Pakistan’s perspective is that the presence of the two giants in SCO notably China and Russia would preclude India using this forum to embarrass Pakistan by hurling unsubstantiated accusations which Western powers to date have endorsed by pressurizing Pakistan to-do more. At the same time, Western powers still struggling with recession are particularly susceptible to India’s purchasing power and have consequently been willing to ignore serious and sustained human rights violations by India in Held Kashmir.
Critics of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unfairly dismissed his scheduled attendance as a lucky break from the ongoing investigation into the Panama Papers; however it must not be ignored that SCO is increasingly becoming a vibrant organisation covering 60 percent of the total territory of Europe and Asia and including nearly 40 percent of world’s population. In addition, the seventeenth heads of government meeting provided Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif an opportunity to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ghani and there was some visible ice breaking.
In the words of our Prime Minister addressed to the SCO summit “as leaders we should leave a legacy of peace and amity for our future generations, not a toxic harvest of conflict and animosity. Instead of talking of counterweights and containment let us create shared spaces for all.” Sage advice indeed, which, one would hope, Indian and Afghan governments would heed.