As Xi and Modi put differences aside at SCO summit, will India-Pakistan ties follow suit?
Neeta Lal says concerns that rancour between new entrants India and Pakistan may strain the cohesion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are somewhat offset by Modi and Xi focusing on convergences
Geopolitical games were in full play at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kazakhstan, as India and Pakistan became full members of the bloc led by China and Russia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also members.
India has long sought full SCO membership to intensify its engagement with Central Asian states, cooperate on terrorism, and bolster connectivity with the resource-rich region, surmounting Pakistan’s obstructionism. It will also push Delhi’s outreach to Afghanistan, an observer state, and assist its regional counterterror and de-radicalisation efforts.
The last aim dovetails with SCO aims to crack down on radical groups, since the signing of the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism in June 2001. As a full member, India hopes to table its concerns about terrorism sponsored by Pakistan.
But the concern for some is that the Pakistan-India rancour may strain the SCO’s fragile cohesion, as well as its anti-terror mechanisms. The Kashmir dispute, in particular, has fuelled four wars between the nuclear-armed neighbours since independence in August 1947. Relations have been especially stormy of late, over cross-border shots and massacres of soldiers.
Even Beijing has expressed concern that the SCO’s solidarity may be jeopardised, and Chinese officials warned the two new entrants to “strictly follow” the spirit of “good-neighbourliness”, as prescribed in the SCO charter.
However, India and Pakistan are not the only challenges facing the SCO; it may face a rocky diplomatic path over India-China wrangling as well.
Delhi has been sceptical of China’s infrastructure projects across Pakistan and Sri Lanka, fearing they might be used for military purposes to encircle India. India has also refused to join China’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative”. China, for its part, has repeatedly scuttled India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
Against this complex backdrop, and in view of the upcoming NSG plenary session and UN Security Council deadline for designating Pakistan-based militant group chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, repeatedly vetoed by China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Xi Jinping (習近平) on the sidelines of the SCO summit assumed critical importance.
Both leaders prudently tiptoed around hot-button issues to focus on convergences, discussing measures to contain differences, work on trade, investment, connectivity and cultural exchanges, while strengthening communication and respecting mutual core concerns. The meeting was a signal that the two nations are willing to look beyond divergences, at the big picture.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist