Fazal Elahi Bilal
The 22nd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s heads of states took place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 15–16, against the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, and the escalating tensions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) happens to be the largest regional organization in the world in terms of population and geographic coverage, accounting for more than 30% of the world’s GDP and over 60% of Eurasia. Therefore, its summits are dubbed important for all member states, including Pakistan. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of Uzbekistan, as the Chair of the summit, emphasized the development of intraregional trade, which includes measures to remove trade barriers, harmonize technical rules, and digitalize customs, as well as efforts to ensure peace and stability in the region, combat poverty, and provide food security.
The Samarkand joint declaration, consisting of 104 points, expressed a strong “commitment to peaceful settlement of differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation”, independence, mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity of states, equality, mutual benefit, non-interference in internal affairs, non-use or threat of use of force, as the basis for sustainable development of international relations and counterterrorism. Russia suggested that the Organization should think about holding its own big athletic events. Russia is also looking at more customers for its energy products as Western countries look to reduce their dependence on them.
A Missed Opportunity for Pakistan
The summit was crucial for Pakistan given it was and is going through a difficult time and is dealing with several challenges, with the most immediate being fighting the ravaging floods. The Pakistani delegation, headed by its Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, did a good job in apprising all countries of the situation and the rising dangers emanating from those. Pakistan’s diplomacy towards that end was vigorous and therefore must be appreciated.
That said, Pakistan is facing several other issues , too, to include a devastating energy crisis, water scarcity, political instability, lack of institutional reforms, disbursement of credit from the world fiscal institutions, and circular debt, etc. Pakistan could have taken some of those issues up, not least that of energy, with a view to exploring avenues of dealing with them.
Next, Pakistan should have used and leveraged the SCO-RATS (Regional Anti-terrorist structure) platform to highlight the prevalent terrorism, extremism, and militancy phenomena in Pakistan, including Tehreek-e-Taliban’s resurgence and sponsored terrorism from India through Afghanistan. In this regard, Pakistan should have been more vociferous in exposing India’s duplicitous policy, under which, on the one hand, it has allied itself to the U.S., to counter China, and on the other hand, it is also a member of the SCO, which raises questions on its commitment to the SCO. India is also going to hold its 23rd heads of states meeting next year. Pakistan should have convinced other members of the role India is playing to not only harm strategic stability but also reduce the prospect of regional connectivity. That could have included India’s 265 fake websites, revelations from the EU DisInfo Lab, and the Indian Pegasus spyware application. Although Pakistan has raised this issue in the United Nations, it should also have used this forum to reiterate that such interferences are repugnant to the spirit of the SCO. What’s more, Pakistan should have firmly centered its messaging on the need for fostering trade and investment-heavy relations with Central Asia. This is simply because the country’s regional connectivity gambit will remain incomplete and unsuccessful without connectivity to that region. Further, Pakistan should have drawn the attention of the participating countries to its tourism sector because it needs to be on top of the priority list given its great potential.
The Organization will have to grapple with a host of issues, including but not limited to the following two:
First, India’s membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), leaning toward the US as a major defense partner and strategic ally, and close links to Australia and Japan, raise questions about India’s commitment to the SCO. India is a member of the Organization, which is driven by China and Russia as its most significant members. On the other hand, India has close connections to the U,S., Japan, and Australia, three countries that compete with China and Russia. Member states should have been forthcoming in asking India tough questions. However, here, it is important to emphasise that SCO does not advocate for playing zero-sum games. Therefore, partnerships per se aren’t problematic, but using them for subversive purpose is.
Second, it is often said major powers always become more dominant and hegemonic, and middle powers like Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran, make alliances and consortiums. Though the Organization does comprise a mixture of these two kinds of powers, there is little clarity on how it would be able to harmonize their relations going forward.
A Way Forward:
Notwithstanding some gaps and inherent dilemmas, the significance of the SCO has increased given the vacuum created by a lack of reliance on diplomacy. Believing in the mutual advantages of regional connectivity, trade, and economic integration, many countries are looking to join SCO’s framework, one way or the other. For a country as committed to regional connectivity as Pakistan, SCO is an ideal conduit to advance its goals, including those that are linked to peace with India. Though both are member states of the Organization, they have not been able it to use it to improve their relations. India and Pakistan must commit to using this platform for lowering temperatures. By highlighting the consequences and manifestations of enduring acrimony, Pakistan can speak to the need for taking steps towards peace in the region.
Fazal Elahi Bilal is a PhD scholar in the School of Integrated Social Sciences (SISS), University of Lahore.