India and Pakistan Are Set to Join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. So What?
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India and Pakistan Are Set to Join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. So What?

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are headed to Ufa, Russia later this week where they will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. Both India and Pakistan are set to join the organization as full members after years of holding observer status. Their accession is expected to conclude in 2016, according to statements by a Russian official. The SCO was founded in 1996 and is largely a forum for limited consultation and cooperation on political, economic, and military matters.

According to the Press Trust of India, the two prime ministers will meet on the sidelines of the summit on July 10. Modi’s talks with Sharif will be an important litmus test for the state of India-Pakistan relations, which have declined in recent months due to a range of factors, including skirmishes across the Line of Control in Kashmir and Pakistan’s treatment of anti-India terrorists.

As my colleague Catherine Putz recently detailed in our Central Asia pages, Modi is on a eight-day, six-nation tour of Central Asia and Russia, with plans to attend the combined BRICS/SCO summit in Ufa from July 8 to 10. Modi’s meeting with Sharif at the SCO summit was expected for some time but was only recently confirmed. Modi and Sharif spoke most recently at the commencement of Ramadan when the Indian prime minister called his Pakistani counterpart. Before then, Sharif and Modi last met in Kathmandu for the 18th SAARC Summit–though they didn’t hold an official bilateral meeting. Last May, shortly after Modi’s inauguration as India’s prime minister, it appeared that the two leaders would establish a positive personal rapport after a series of photo ops and candid personal exchanges but, as in the past, trouble along the border and other issues reverted India and Pakistan to their normal state of mutual suspicion and rivalry.

The Implications of Indian and Pakistani Accession

The inclusion of India and Pakistan into the Russia and China-led SCO will expand the organization’s scope, leading it to encompass an additional 1.5 billion people. Current members include China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. India and Pakistan, along with Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, have been observers of the SCO. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, will travel to Ufa to attend the summit at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told reporters that ”India and Pakistan’s admission to the SCO will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will play a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of their bilateral relations.” Cheng is perhaps overly optimistic about the SCO’s ability to bridge the differences that persist between India and Pakistan. The organization itself is a fairly uneventful forum in Asia these days, though it was originally seen as a manifestation of China’s ambitions for regional leadership and security coordination.

Geopolitically, SCO membership could highlight avenues for greater cooperation between India and China in areas such as terrorism and Afghan reconstruction. Pakistan’s membership, if anything, will help it interface better with the organization’s Central Asian members and Russia; Pakistan and China already enjoy a close strategic partnership. For China, incorporating India and Pakistan is a testament to the organization’s openness–something Beijing has stressed in the past with little to show for it.

China will be hoping that India’s inclusion will stave off some of the criticism of the organization as a grouping of states with little affection for the Western world order; having a state that in addition to being the world’s largest democracy has a range of disagreements with China on board may indeed do so. Incorporating India as a full member also mitigates fears that the SCO will shape up to be a China-led NATO–an unfounded, but persistent perception of the organization. This perception has been exacerbated by full-scale military cooperation between SCO members; it remains unclear how India and Pakistan will figure into the SCO’s existing arrangements for counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing.

With India and Pakistan’s accession, the SCO will probably head toward becoming more a symbolically important Asian talk-shop rather than a substantive forum for cooperation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to image how the inclusion of Pakistan and India will allow the organization to somehow suddenly become more dynamic and cooperative forum. In essence, the SCO is going from being more like-minded to less so, especially with India’s inclusion.

Certainly, this won’t be antithetical to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s conception of the organization. Xi noted that “SCO members have created a new model of international relations — partnership instead of alliance.” With Xi’s burgeoning “One Belt, One Road” vision for increased connectivity through continental and maritime Asia, an expansion of the SCO will be a welcome development.

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