Pakistan recently became a full member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) after Foreign Affairs' Advisor, Mr. Sartaj Aziz signed a ‘Memorandum of Obligations’ (MoOs) at Heads of State Summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan along with Foreign Ministers of six member states: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Except Uzbekistan which was admitted in 2001, the others had been members of SCO since 1996 when it was first formed. Pakistan’s entry into SCO, along with that of India, had been approved in principle by member states last year at Ufa in Russia, subject to procedural formalities but they joined as full members in June 2017.
SCO has a robust organizational structure where ‘The Council of Heads of States’ form its top decision making body which meets at SCO’s summit held each year in one of the member states’ capital cities by rotation. The second highest decision making body is ‘The Council of Heads of Governments’ which holds annual summits during which members discuss issues of multilateral cooperation and approve organization’s budget. The global footprint of SCO in terms of human race and economic clout is huge and can be gauged from the fact that between them the eight permanent members of SCO constitute nearly half the world’s population and a quarter of world’s GDP.
Quite appropriately then, SCO has done well to join hands with other international and regional bodies beginning with UNO where it has an observer status in the General Assembly since 2004. Likewise, it has reached out to Commonwealth of Independent States (2005), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (2005), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (2007), the Economic Co-operation Organization (2007), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2011), the Conference of Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (2014) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (2015).
In its observer’s status, Pakistan had been regularly attending SCO’s meeting since 2005 but applied for full membership in 2010, becoming the first country amongst observer members to apply for an elevated status. Both India and Pakistan are expected to speedily complete the remaining process preferably before next year’s planned Summit in Kazakhstan for their integration in the organization’s cooperation mechanism which includes regular meetings between their foreign ministers and heads of the states.
Given the state of Indo-Pak relations, simultaneous membership of SCO by these two countries must have been a difficult proposition but it goes to the credit of member states to pull it off smoothly and successfully. The accession of Pakistan and India to SCO will undoubtedly enhance its relevance both regionally and globally. Iran, which has been attending the SCO’s proceedings as an observer, could be the next country to join SCO as a full member thus adding further to its importance. Iran’s joining of SCO could happen sooner than later in view of its worsening relations with U.S. on the nuclear deal signed during former President Obama’s administration and the political re-alignment in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
SCO has an appropriate focus on creating improved security environments for weaker states in the region resulting from potential fallout from further instability in Afghanistan. This has been so right from its inception when in 1996 its members first signed what they called ‘Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions’ followed by another agreement the following year called ‘Reduction of Military Forces in Border Region’. There has, however, been little constructive work on the ground to prepare weaker states of the organization located on southern fringes of two geographically vast and militarily strong countries like Russia and China, to cope with fallout from Afghanistan if it slides into deeper chaos as a result of uncertain and unpredictable actions by U.S. administration – a danger which has increased ever since the incumbent U.S. President assumed power in Washington DC.
Regular summit meetings in the last few years have enhanced SCO’s status as an important and effective multilateral forum where actual issues of international policy, economy, regional security and security come under serious discussion. In contemporary global milieu, these four elements are becoming increasingly crucial to stimulate investment for economic development. Pakistan stands to gain from full membership of SCO as it will provide an opportunity to play its cards better with countries like U.S. and multilateral donors including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank where U.S. wields considerable influence and uses these forums for political gains.
The influence of SCO in regional and global issues is also increasing slowly but consistently and is expected to grow further as the number of observer countries and dialogue partners increase. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to state that in not too distant a future, SCO has the potential to transition from its current label as a regional ‘hub club’ to a powerful co-operation forum that would deal with security and economic issues on a wider geographical space from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe.
The permanent membership status of SCO is also likely to help Pakistan in gaining greater access to resource base and energy projects within the organization’s framework. This could go a long way in shoring up its economic vulnerabilities; strengthen diplomatic standing in its interactions with other countries and overall rendering it less prone to pressure tactics by financially and militarily strong countries.
A pertinent example of such pressure tactics is the Iran-Pak gas pipeline project where Pakistan has been pressurized to shelve the project and opt instead for liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports from Qatar. The U.S. Agency for International Development USAID had even engaged a consultant to assist Pakistan in reaching an agreement for a commercial deal for LNG supply from Qatar. The double irony is that even such an arrangement could also be severely impacted by ongoing Saudi-Qatar tensions, adding to difficulties in Pakistan’s endeavors to secure dependable energy lifelines so vital for our development.
Pakistan’s membership of SCO will boost several other major projects such as military and technical cooperation with Russia and strategic communication projects with China. Pakistan’s recent offer to SCO members to use Pakistan’s ports once CPEC is completed holds a lot of promise for increased commercial activity in the region and amongst SCO countries through Arabian Sea trade routes. This appears very logical given Pakistan’s focus on a trade strategy of developing linkages with neighbors, leveraging its geographical location and capitalizing on regional connectivity initiatives. Cross-border trade is especially important for land-locked countries to the north of Pakistan. Both SCO countries and Pakistan stand to gain substantially in this matrix through expansion of trade and investment as well as greater integration through road networks, rail, fiber optic cables and energy pipelines which are the hallmark of CPEC project.
Pakistan’s membership of SCO will boost several other major projects such as military and technical co-operation with Russia and strategic communication projects with China. Pakistan’s recent offer to SCO members to use Pakistan’s ports once CPEC is completed holds a lot of promise for increased commercial activity in the region and amongst SCO countries through Arabian Sea trade routes. This appears very logical given Pakistan’s focus on a trade strategy of developing linkages with neighbors, leveraging its geographical location and capitalizing on regional connectivity initiatives. Cross-border trade is especially important for land-locked countries to the north of Pakistan. Both SCO countries and Pakistan stand to gain substantially in this matrix through expansion of trade and investment as well as greater integration through road networks, rail, fiber optic cables and energy pipelines which are the hallmark of CPEC project.
As there is more progress on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Silk Road Economic Belt with Eurasian Economic Union, the role of Pakistan in regional economy and infrastructure projects will increase which in turn will have a positive impact on its standing in the SCO.
In the last two decades, SCO has gradually but steadily consolidated its place as an important international forum which is becoming difficult to ignore in current global politics. This is being acknowledged in Western capital though in the same vein they are also critical of its objectives.
Afghanistan perched on southern flank of two major members of SCO (Russia and China) and from where they perceive a threat of instability, also happens to be Pakistan’s northern flank. There is thus a commonality of interest to join hands in thwarting designs of destabilizing elements and enhancing regional security for benefit of all countries. Pakistan might find that looking at multiple options to deepen economic cooperation through use of SCO forum may well be the best remedy against a continuing threat of terrorism and violence. Pakistan would do well to utilize this platform in areas in which SCO offers the maximum dividend and has the best potential, namely greater connectivity in state-of-the-art communications, international standard rail and road network, and multi-dimensional energy corridors.
While SCO has the potential of mediating and resolving varying problems, we shouldn’t be overzealous in bringing its long outstanding disputes to this forum for resolution as this could retard progress on much needed economic integration and be counter-productive. Besides, ignoring ‘development-centric’ core interests of other member states could adversely affect the growth of SCO and reduce its relevance regionally and internationally, as indeed has happened in the case of SAARC, albeit due to an entirely different set of reasons.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
E-mail: [email protected]
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