On May 4-5, India will host a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where top diplomats from member countries will be discussing a wide range of issues including economic cooperation and regional security. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will be traveling to India to attend the summit, making him the first high-ranking Pakistani official to visit India since the visit of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2014.
This appears to be an eminent development after almost a decade of strained relations between India and Pakistan. The SCO has previously provided India and Pakistan with a platform for dialogue, facilitating the development of cordial relations between the two states. This foreign ministers’ meeting has the potential to ease the extremely strained relations between the two South Asian nuclear powers.
India and Pakistan have seen the lowest of lows in their relationship since independence in 1947. From their 1948 war to the recent air skirmishes of February 2019, India and Pakistan have fought three full-scale wars and many limited-scale skirmishes, which gives a clear picture of the condition of their bilateral relations
The issue of Kashmir remains a flashpoint between the two adversaries, with both claiming the region in full holding control over two different parts: Indian-administered Kashmir (which India stripped of its autonomy and brought under central control in 2019) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir (which still holds an uncertain administrative status, even according to Pakistan). From the 1948 war to the Kargil war, Kashmir was the focus for both states. Even beyond their direct conflicts, border management issues, terrorism, and infiltration pose further complications between India and Pakistan.
Despite periodic attempts to advance peace talks and reconciliation, relations between India and Pakistan remained fraught with mistrust and animosity. However, some positive developments can be seen in recent year. For example, the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims was developed and opened for pilgrims from India and Pakistan in 2019.
This year’s SCO meeting, and Bhutto Zardari’s trip to India, can be seen as another opportunity to ease tensions between the two states. A recent precedent can be seen in the meeting between the prime ministers of both states, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, on the sideline of 2015 SCO summit. The meeting can be credited as a success, as it led to the resumption of bilateral talks between the two states.
Additionally, since the SCO is a platform that is foundationally against the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, member states can use the forum to discuss these matters and form a dialogue. India and Pakistan share historical hostility over each of these “three evils,” as they accuse each other of fostering cross-border terrorism and supporting separatist groups. In this regard, SCO summits provide India and Pakistan with opportunities to proceed with counterterrorism and intelligence sharing dialogues as per the specified guidelines of SCO counterterror mechanisms. By optimally working together through the SCO, both states can build trust and pave the way for further dialogues and even peace talks, therefore improving relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
If relations between India and Pakistan are improved, the benefits would transcend even the boundaries of these states, being felt as well on the regional and global levels. The biggest potential benefit is regional stability; tensions between the two states have created a ripple effect in the whole South Asian region, worsening the stability and security of all regional countries. Improved relations between India and Pakistan in this regard would reduce the risk of conflict, promote cooperation, and overall contribute to the prosperity of the region.
Moreover, there are a number of common threats and challenges faced by both India and Pakistan. Improved relations could create opportunities for both countries to counter these threats and face these challenges via joint collective efforts, which in turn would be more beneficial and more effective. For example, Pakistan and India both face terrorism and extremism, floods and environmental degradation, pollution and poverty. These challenges and threats can be best mitigated if both India and Pakistan work collectively on these ventures.
India’s role as SCO host this year can provide hope for the troubled neighbors after nearly a decade of hostile relations toward each other. This meeting can provide an opportunity for both countries’ diplomats to engage in a productive dialogue to move toward easing these strained relations. Moreover, these dialogues can lead to the resumption of bilateral talks over points of contention and issues where a security and confidence dilemma exists, such as Kashmir, terror financing, etc.
India and Pakistan, the two largest economies in South Asia, severed trade relations since 2019 after air skirmishes between the two states following the terrorist attack in Pulwama. The two neighbors stand to benefit if trade relations are resumed and the amount of bilateral trade increases in an exponential manner between them. The SCO can facilitate such an arrangement as the group has widened its horizon over time to include trade. The SCO has successfully accomplished cooperation among member states in the avenues of trade in national currencies, agricultural engagement, micro, small, and medium enterprises, etc. An increase in bilateral investments, joint infrastructure projects, and interdependence in trade can provide large-scale incentives for both India and Pakistan, thus propagating peace between them.
Furthermore, the SCO platform can also be employed to address regional security issues such as extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan, where both India and Pakistan hold stakes.
The longstanding conflictual and tense relations between India and Pakistan have posed significant negative implications for both countries and the South Asian region. The upcoming SCO meeting thus holds great importance for Pakistan and India, as it will be the first time in nearly a decade that a high-ranking official from Pakistan visits India. As such, it can provide an opportunity to overcome past difficulties and move forward to build improved and better relations.
Viewed through an optimistic lens, if India-Pakistan relations are improved via the SCO, we could witness an exponential growth in trade, enhanced regional stability, and a combined effort to mitigate common challenges and threats faced by both India and Pakistan. Such an arrangement seems imperative for both states, particularly for Pakistan as the state is facing enormous challenges in these realms. Continued efforts for the development of cordial relations can result in long-term stability for the region and a combined development, which is crucial for both India and Pakistan.