The SCO can be a regional force, but member countries must resolve disputes bilaterally

The SCO can be a regional force, but member countries must resolve disputes bilaterally

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The virtual summit meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) hosted by India last week ended on a bitter note with the member countries sparring with each other over regional disputes. The geopolitical tensions overshadowed the promise of multilateral cooperation. The Indian prime minister’s swipe at Pakistan and China in his inaugural address vitiated the atmosphere from the very outset of the one-day parleys.

The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic and security organization, which unites China, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and now Iran. It’s currently the world’s largest regional bloc in terms of geographic scope and population. The forum covers 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its GDP. The inclusion of Iran in the fold has further broadened the SCO’s scope. 

Regardless of conflicts among the members, the SCO provides a useful forum for cooperation on many issues. The conclave is meant to discuss regional and global challenges and reach some understanding on common goals and objectives. Issues related to security and stability, the energy and food crisis and economic cooperation dominate the discussion at the summit. 

Notwithstanding interstate conflicts, the SCO over the past decade has cooperated in many fields, including counterterrorism. Most importantly, collaboration in the health sector in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has been significant. There has also been some progress on expanding trade and connectivity among the SCO member nations.

Notwithstanding the tensions that marred the latest summit, a strong Eurasian alliance is not only imperative for economic cooperation but also for regional security

Zahid Hussain 

Traditionally, the member countries are not supposed to raise bilateral problems at SCO meetings and only discuss ways to increase multilateral cooperation. In the previous summit held in Samarkand last September, both India and Pakistan refrained from attacking each other in their speeches. 

But the Indian prime minister set all diplomatic norms aside and not only implicitly accused Pakistan of sponsoring ‘cross-border terrorism’ but also targeted China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which he claimed passes through “disputed territory.” Responding to Prime Minister Modi’s provocative remarks, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif cautioned against the dangers of “violent ultra-nationalism” and criticized the use of terrorism for diplomatic point-scoring.

However, the Chinese president ignored the host’s not-so-thinly veiled critique and dwelled on cooperation to resolve political disputes among member states. During his speech, the Chinese leader called on SCO members to increase their trade in national currencies. However, these rational suggestions were overshadowed by the earlier comments of the Indian prime minister.

It was the unfortunate outcome of a multilateral forum that has huge potential to become one of the world’s most prosperous and powerful economic and geopolitical blocs. With the host nation using the platform to discuss bilateral disputes and to lash out at other member nations, it left no room for discussion on trade and economic cooperation among the SCO countries.

There was certainly no hope that the summit meeting could provide any opportunity for interaction between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the parleys or break the ice in the relations between the two neighbors after Delhi decided to hold the conference via video link.

Perhaps one of the reasons behind India’s decision not to hold the conference in person was to avoid Modi coming face to face with the Pakistani leader. The frosty reception given to Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto during the SCO foreign minister’s meeting in Goa earlier this year was a clear indication that the present ultra-nationalist government in Delhi is not interested in bringing down tensions with Islamabad. Not only did Bhutto not meet his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the two even avoided handshakes. 

There is also widespread speculation that the Indian decision not to hold an in person summit was meant to avoid hosting Vladimir Putin, which could have annoyed Washington and other Western countries. The SCO conference took place at a critical time in an atmosphere of fast-changing geopolitics. Both Moscow and Beijing, who are members of the organization, are challenging American domination not only in the domain of geopolitics but also in geoeconomics.

Whatever the reason may be for the Indian decision to go online, there was no rationale in Prime Minister Modi’s vitriolic outburst at the multilateral forum. It also raises questions about whether India should have been given the responsibility for hosting an important multilateral conference as it’s not willing to put aside its bilateral disputes.

Notwithstanding the tensions that marred the latest summit, a strong Eurasian alliance is not only imperative for economic cooperation but also for regional security. The SCO has huge potential to become a driver of growth for the entire region and beyond, provided the member countries resolve their disputes with each other bilaterally.

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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