For nearly seven decades, India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads.
The dispute over Kashmir, in particular, has fuelled four wars between the two nuclear-armed neighbours since their independence in August 1947. The ties have soured further in recent years: there have been no bilateral talks, incidents of cross-border firing have been frequent, and soldiers manning the border have been decapitated.
And for over five of those seven decades, China’s been the proverbial elephant in the south Asian room. While it has a running border dispute with India—the two fought a brief war in 1962—China has deep economic, military, and even nuclear ties with Pakistan.
So, on the face of it, this would seem like an anomaly: India and Pakistan have joined the China-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), potentially making way for joint military exercises in the future under a multilateral aegis.
With the SCO, India will look to join a key international high-table where it can bring forth matters of its concern, such as terrorism and trade. Besides, it will also gain better access to the central Asian region. Pakistan, on the other hand, will try and make it another forum to improve its tattered reputation and, of course, get even more close to China.
Since 2005, the two countries have been observers at the SCO, whose other members include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The group primarily focusses on security and economic co-operation in the Eurasian region. With India and Pakistan joining it, the SCO will represent over 40% of the world’s population and nearly 20% of its GDP.
But what could be a matter of uneasiness and interest in south Asia is the possibility of the militaries of India and Pakistan joining forces.
“The memorandum of obligations of the SCO dictates joint military exercises. The initiative will certainly bring greater confidence in military-to-military interface. Russia and China are also keen on bringing India and Pakistan together,” Phunchok Stobdan, former Indian diplomat and Eurasia expert, told Quartz. “India and Pakistan have jointly worked together under the United Nations, but this will be the first time in a smaller group as far as joint military exercises are concerned.”
The two countries will also be obliged to be part of the Tashkent-based Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) which helps in fighting terror, drugs and cyber issues. “New Delhi and Islamabad will be taking steps towards a one-of-a-kind cooperation by committing to ‘joint military exercises’ under the rubric of counter-terrorism cooperation,” The Indian Express newspaper reported on June 08.
Not many agree with this assertion, though. Joint military exercises are unlikely, they say, particularly given the frozen ties in recent times. Yet, they do not rule out combined exercises with all other members. “It beggars belief that India and Pakistan would partner in joint exercises. Would doing so be a big confidence-builder? Absolutely. But will it happen? I really can’t imagine it will for the forseeable future,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for south and southeast Asia at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
Opinion is also divided on what effect the south Asian rivalry could have on the SCO itself. Most observers dismiss suggestions that the SCO would expend time and energy on regional rivalries.
“I don’t think we should overstate the influence that India and Pakistan will have on the SCO, whether positive or negative. This is a large, regional organisation that is dominated by powers like China and Russia,” Kugelman said.
In any case, India may not want to use the forum to focus on its bilateral disputes as there are other matters that need attention. , Beijing, too, may not may not want that. “China will not take kindly to any dragging of differences with India to that forum. Hence, I do not anticipate any turbulence in the group as a consequence of India and Pakistan joining,” said Madhav Nalapat, the UNESCO Peace Chair at the department of geopolitics and international relations at Manipal University.
However, others prescribe caution. Referring to one of the key requirements of joining the SCO, ambassador Stobdan said: “As far as India and Pakistan goes, their relations can either bring together the SCO, or destroy it completely.”
Meanwhile, India’s entry into the SCO comes at a time when Sino-Indian ties haven’t been at their best either. Last month, India refused to join China’s ambitious One Belt One Road project, an estimated $5 trillion (pdf) infrastructure spending spree that spans 60-plus countries across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. China, on its part, has been prickly about India joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an exclusive club of 48 countries that control the global trade in nuclear technology.
So, New Delhi’s SCO entry could be the much-needed sliver lining in the overcast Asian sky.
“Joining the SCO is a low-cost initiative to increase India’s influence in Central Asia,” Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India said. “The drawback, however, is that India joining the SCO could open a precedent for China to claim membership in SAARC, BIMSTEC, and other regional organisations in South Asia.”
The geopolitical war-dance in Asia just got more interesting.