Taking stock of the region

A multilateral mindset in India


The holding of the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Goa gained attention from the presence there of Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, mainly because it was the first visit to India by a senior official since Mian Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister attended the first swearing-in of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Bilawal acquitted himself creditably, as he fought Pakistan’s corner manfully at the SCO meeting itself, as well as in his press interviews that he gave. There was no breakthrough, as none should have been expected at the multilateral forum. At the same time, the failure of Bilawal to meet even his host, Indian counterpart L. Jaishankar, reflected that the BJP government, which has kept Pakistan at arms’ length ever since the 2019 Pulwama incident, which it used to whip up nationalist sentiment as India re-elected Modi, still does not want to engage Pakistan.

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Interestingly enough, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization did not include either India or Pakistan when it was founded. It was envisaged essentially as a security organization, and was the product of the US occupation of Afghanistan. It came into being as the Shanghai Five in 1996, with Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as members. In 2001, it became the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, with the addition of Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan both joined in 2017.

It is the world’s largest regional organization in terms of geographic scope and population, covering approximately 60% of the area of Eurasia, 40% of the world population. Its combined GDP is around 20% of global GDP.

Though essentially meant to deal with Afghanistan, the SCO is now an anti-terrorist organization more generally, something the Indian Foreign Minister exploited, mouthing India’s tired old accusations about interference in Kashmir and other insurgencies, while keeping quiet about India’s role, through RAW, in fanning the flames of terrorism, or of the role of captured RAW operative Kulbhushan Jhadav.

India has more or less torpedoed SAARC, which was not just a regional association, but was supposed to provide a forum at which Pakistan and India could interact. The model mentioned most around the time it was formed was that of Germany and France, perennial enemies, who had fought three wars, but who had begun to cooperate in the European Economic Community, which then became the European Union. However, it does not suit India to be on good terms with its neighbours, especially in trade relations.

India wants to exploit the smaller countries in the region economically, and the exploitative non-tariff trade barriers it has erected during the era of Nehruvian socialism, are evidence of that. India has shown itself as overbearing and bullying to all its smaller neighbours, with Pakistan the main standard-bearer for the rights of smaller powers. SAARC threatened India with a more equitable path to regional development, in which no country was another’s colony.

The SCO was shown to be too valuable a forum for Pakistan to let it develop into a mere battlefield in the Indo-Pak bickering. Paradoxically, the best way of ensuring that would be to maintain as combative a stance as Bilawal did.

Apart from the BJP’s visceral hatred for Pakistan, which it also finds useful to whip up an anti-Muslim frenzy against, the BJP also wishes to avoid trade because it has links with the business community. That business community has been cocooned by governments whose party coffers they filled, and fears the ide idea of direct competition with Pakistan. A lot of Pakistani businessmen have developed relationships with Indian businessmen, presently dormant, but ready to spring into action if there is economic liberalisation. Such businessmen are the ones most enthusiastic about liberalization, and the ‘patriots’ are the ones without such assurances.

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That accounts for Indian footdragging on SAARC. However, it now seems the SCO is to suffer the same fate. Ostensibly, the SCO is not about Kashmir. But India is only too ready to bring the issue there almost as if to pre-empt Pakistan from using the forum. The presence of India in the SCO may not totally sink the organization, because apart from it, Russia and China are also there, intent on making the SCO work.

The primary purpose of the SCO is to ensure that there is no intervention in Eurasia like the USA carried out in Afghanistan. This apparently sits ill with India’s currying favour with the USA, which makes a further reason why India and the SCO are not a good fit. However, the SCO can also be seen as the body that China would prefer for the Belt and Road Iniative. As a matter of fact, the BRI, as well as the modern Silk Road, passes through the SCO members. India is not yet part of the BRI, but it forms part of the greater plan.

What does come in the way is India’s desire to be a hegemonic power on its own, in rivalry to China. This desire is despite the fact of the deep economic relations between the two, reflected not just in the $100-billion-plus annual trade volume, but the billions of dollars worth of investment in each other, and in joint venture. This economic closeness is going to be more significant for Pakistan in time to come, and is behind China prodding Pakistan to go easy whenever there is a confrontation between the two.

The USA has got two large countries to its north and south, Canada and Mexico. However, neither is an aspirant to similarly global status. China has Russia to its West as a kind of Canada, and India to the South as a kind of Mexico. Both Russia and India think of themselves as emerging superpowers in no way willing to accept Chinese superiority.

Pakistan’s moment of truth will come when India and China resolve their issues. It must not be forgotten that the basis of the Pakistan-China relationship was laid in Indo-Chinese conflict. That conflict is by no means over, but if ever it is (and it should be, considering the geoeconomic imperatives of the situation), then China might want to examine why it is still friends with Pakistan. The converse is true: any Indo-Pak rapprochement would inevitably have effects on the Pak-China relationship. CPEC, and the BRI, should thus be seen as a guarantee of a prolonged Pak-China engagement, independent of any antipathy to India.

It is thus significant that Bilawal’s sideline interaction was limited to a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister. His interaction with the Chinese Foreign Minister came in Pakistan. While the former provided a chance to review the growing relationship, in which Russia has become more interested after being abandoned by India for the USA, the latter was more important. China wants to invest a large sum in Pakistan, with the figure of $58 billion being spoken of. That might offer Pakistan some relief, but it does not take it out of the debt trap, as a similiar sum was invested under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but did not stop Pakistan getting into its present situation. Related to this is the Saudi Arabian desire to raise investment in Pakistan to $10 billion, (Saudi Arabia, long considered a US ally) is now diversifying, as witness the deal with Iran that China brokered.)

The SCO was shown to be too valuable a forum for Pakistan to let it develop into a mere battlefield in the Indo-Pak bickering. Paradoxically, the best way of ensuring that would be to maintain as combative a stance as Bilawal did.


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