India and Pakistan are all set to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as full members next year after the regional grouping voted to include them in its latest summit in Ufa, Russia. Many believe that this is the SCO's attempt to secure China's New Silk Road project. But if all goes well, the SCO could do a lot more than just that -it may even help resolve the India-Pakistan conflict.
If there are two countries along the New Silk Road who can blow up the entire project, they are India and Pakistan. The two South Asian rivals sparred over Beijing's decision to build a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) recently from Kashgar in China to Gwadar in Pakistan. New Delhi opposed the project, claiming that it ran through the heart of the disputed Pakistan-controlled region of Kashmir. Beijing has refrained from making any inflammatory comments on the issue, but it is wary of the potent effect that the Indo-Pak conflict can have on its Silk Road dreams.
"[T]he SCO has tools to stitch together relations between the two neighbours -- starting with boosting economic cooperation between them."
Beijing now hopes that the SCO will be able to bring the two together and defuse a potential threat. Commenting on the induction of India and Pakistan into the SCO, an article in China's state-run Xinhua hoped that the grouping will help resolve differences between New Delhi and Islamabad within its framework. Russia's Vladimir Putin also echoed that view, voicing the hope that "the SCO will be able to facilitate a compromise between India and Pakistan."
But it won't be easy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif recently met on the sidelines of the same SCO summit, promising to re-launch the bilateral dialogue process and expedite the trial of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. But problems cropped up soon after the joint statement, when Pakistan failed to file a petition to gather crucial voice samples of the main accused Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Elsewhere, along the border, shelling resumed between the two armies and fingers were being pointed once again. And things were further complicated when Indian intelligence agencies accused Pakistan of having had a hand in a terror attack in Punjab earlier this week.
Notwithstanding all this, the SCO has tools to stitch together relations between the two neighbours -- starting with boosting economic cooperation between them. Despite being the largest economy on its periphery, India accounted for less than 5% of Pakistan's total foreign trade in 2011. Bilateral trade stands at a meagre $2 billion (in comparison, India's trade with China totals over $70 billion). Road connectivity remains dismal, visas are hard to get, and trade suffers.
The lack of economic cooperation has greatly hindered any progress in India's bilateral ties with Pakistan. Unlike with China, where Beijing and New Delhi constantly work for strong and meaningful economic engagement -- both bilateral and multilateral -- despite several outstanding political issues, India and Pakistan have no such economic incentives. In the absence of meaningful economic engagement, the bilateral dialogue has been dominated, and often hijacked, by far more difficult questions over the border or the dispute in Kashmir. All that can change if the SCO can help fulfill the vast and unexplored potential of the Indo-Pak economic relationship.
"India will hope that the anti-terror mechanisms within the SCO will aid in pressing Pakistan to act against terror outfits operating from its territory."
Then of course, there is the security threat. The conflict in Kashmir, over the years, has given birth to multiple terrorist outfits that operate out of the region. For years, India has tried to pin the blame on Pakistan and make it accountable for its actions. For years, it has failed. The 26/11 trial continues to meander, nearly seven years on. Lakhvi, a UN-designated terrorist, now walks free in Pakistan.
But the SCO could help on terrorism as well. India will hope that the anti-terror mechanisms within the SCO will aid in pressing Pakistan to act against terror outfits operating from its territory. The military cooperation framework will also help bring accountability on Pakistan for acting against terror camps on its soil. With China now heavily invested in the security of the region, New Delhi will hope for help from Beijing as well.
All of this might sound like fantasy today. The trust deficit between India and Pakistan runs deep and bilateral engagement has recently been on the downslide. New Delhi has long resented any multilateral mediation in its bilateral conflict with Islamabad -- and for good reason. Yet, the cooperative framework of a multilateral forum like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could well act as a driving force for the relationship. Whether the SCO really succeeds in fulfilling that promise remains to be seen.