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Should Pakistan Attend the SCO Summit in India?

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Should Pakistan Attend the SCO Summit in India?

Pakistan’s choice of whether to attend the SCO summit in India will send signals to internal and external audiences on a number of levels.

Should Pakistan Attend the SCO Summit in India?

The 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at the far left; Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif at the far right.

Credit: Indian Prime Minister’s Office

India has extended an invitation to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s foreign minister, to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit scheduled for May this year. If Pakistan accepts this invitation, it would be the first time in 12 years that a Pakistani delegation has entered India.

In the backdrop of this invitation, we’ve seen Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, making comments on reinvigorating dialogue with India, and even a hard exchange between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India at the United Nations General Assembly.

There seem to be two schools of thought regarding the invitation, with some analysts are in favor of accepting and others are against. While the key decision makers may already be busy coming up with a response to the invite, here are the possible pros and cons of Pakistan attending the SCO summit taking place in India.

The overarching logic dictates that Pakistan must attend the SCO summit, thus keeping bilateral issues away from multilateral ones. For Islamabad, going to this summit offers opportunities. While India will continue to portray Pakistan negatively, this invitation is an opportunity for Islamabad to at least control the optics and to test the waters for larger gains.

First, the summit should be viewed from a larger perspective, one that reflects the macro lens of Pakistan’s regional and global diplomacy. The SCO is a fantastic setting for Pakistan: the agenda is naturally dictated by China and Russia, and any unilateral attempts by India to paint Pakistan with the letter “T” (terrorism) may become pointless.

Herein lies the difference between India’s G-20 presidency and the SCO presidency. India may be able to use the G-20 platform to push false narratives about Pakistan. However, even that could work to Pakistan’s benefit. Global priorities have long since shifted to other global issues like great power competition between the United States and China, the international financial crunch, the environment and sustainable development, and far-right politics. For now, these issues are outweighing the concern about terrorism in the global arena.

Second, this SCO offers a starting point for Pakistan to show its maturity as a cooperative state on the global and regional stage. Whether or not this visit culminates in a sideline bilateral meeting between Pakistan and India is hard to say, but the Pakistani government can only find out by attending the summit. Despite tense relations between China and India, they are interacting; thus there is no excuse for Pakistan to sit out this meeting. This is a starting point for breaking the ice between the two countries, of course keeping the sensitivities in check.

Moreover, such bold diplomatic moves are currently needed for Pakistan to maneuver in these uncertain times. Pakistan’s internal sociopolitical and economic turmoil has created a sense of despair, but despite the worrisome state of affairs, Pakistan has displayed some successful diplomacy on the front of climate justice and even its exit from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) gray list. Now Pakistan must pursue its agenda of regional connectivity through the SCO platform.

Pakistan’s National Security Policy (NSP) envisions peace internally and with its neighbors through economic relations and regional integration. Attending the SCO summit will fall in line with Pakistan’s NSP, and perhaps in the larger picture of events, become a step toward loosening the gridlock that plagues the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has not held a summit since 2014 due to India-Pakistan tensions.

For Pakistan, the mere response to India’s invitation will bring certain implications; such is the fraught nature of their relationship. Regardless, Pakistan and India must not sabotage the SCO, lest it follow SAARC into a standstill. The SCO is led by two Eurasian heavyweights, Russia and China, both crucial to the foreign policy of Pakistan. Pakistani decision makers will have to put hawkishness to one side and plan a strong diplomatic case to present at the SCO, without the expectation of a thaw from the other side.

Yet there is also the chance that Pakistan’s attendance may not necessarily pay dividends in terms of its bilateral relationship with India. Whether India will respond to Pakistan’s gestures is hard to say, given the rigid stand the current Modi government has taken. The sporadic engagement of Pakistan with India does not imbue much confidence either. Some have argued that with Pakistan losing its socioeconomic and political vitality, it does not have much to offer externally.

Moreover, the bigger question looms for Pakistan’s long-term policy in dealing with India. Kashmir remains a bone of contention between the two sides. While the military establishment in Pakistan insists that India reverts control of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government has long refused to agree to this. The deadlock is likely to persist indefinitely, given the mistrust between India and Pakistan. So even if Pakistan sends a delegation to the SCO meeting, without a long-term policy adjustment on one or both sides, this ad hoc diplomatic venture may not gain much beyond a momentary headline.

Additionally, attending the summit could cause backlash at home from political opponents, who may exploit the country’s geopolitical decisions for their own benefit. Pakistan’s current coalition government is facing off against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf under former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has previously been seen at SCO summits in proximity with the Russian and Chinese presidents. If Pakistan’s presence this year does not match the glitzy optics of previous summits, the coalition government could face much whataboutism at home.

Apart from that, the inward focus seems to be more on the election cycles in both Pakistan and India, leaving no room for creative thinking to resolve the bilateral gridlock. Perhaps the level of appetite to escalate or diffuse tensions will become clearer as the summit nears.

Pakistan is also suffering from a resurgent Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and in recent weeks high security alerts have been issued across the country. This is an unfortunate reality that the country faces, which has significantly lowered the world’s confidence in Pakistan’s security and business ecosystems. The state of fragility may not allow Pakistani officials to match actions with words at the SCO.

Despite these concerns and scenarios, this situation offers us insight into what plans the current government has for the country. Whether or not Pakistan accepts this invitation will offer some indication as to the direction chosen by the new establishment. It is also imperative to understand that the country is run by a coalition government, meaning it speaks with different voices on multiple subjects. Perhaps in this case, Prime Minister Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz may want to take a backseat, and the Pakistan People’s Party – led by Foreign Minister Bhutto – would want to take the lead on bold diplomatic gestures, and possibly grab the attention of the establishment.

However, the military establishment may not necessarily be appreciative of this endeavor as the new chief of army staff, like his predecessor, has shown no will to put the Kashmir dispute on the back burner. This would also shed light on the civil-military relations in Pakistan’s foreign policy moving forward, which has traditionally come from a hawkish place when it comes to India.

Pakistan’s choice to attend or not to attend the SCO summit in India will therefore send signals to internal and external audiences on multiple levels.