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EFSAS Commentary

In the absence of adequate addressal of radicalization and terrorism in South Asia, objectives of the SCO will remain mere illusions


The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) 2019 summit, which took place on 13 and 14 June in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, marked the expeditious rise of the once inconspicuous inter-governmental political, economic and security alliance, that is currently at the forefront of formulating and enacting the Eurasian grand geo-political strategy, countering Western interference and influence.

Established in 2001 and consisting of eight full member States, namely Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan – the latter two joining in 2017 – the SCO is at present the largest regional organisation in the world in regards to geographical coverage and population, covering approximately three fifths of the Eurasian continent, a quarter of the world's GDP and nearly half of the human population. In addition to its member States, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia carry an observer status, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey hold the status of dialogue partners.

Its two founding fathers, China and Russia, also appear closer than ever, the relation between which is currently at its apogee, with numerous exchanges of gestures of affection and friendship, negating any fears of a power struggle between Moscow and Beijing and illustrating how the growing bonhomie of the two could give more weight and potency to the SCO.

During Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Russia, starting 5 June, which marked the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, he and Putin signed numerous trade deals, energy and technology agreements – ranging from nuclear power and natural gas to 5G and mobile technology – worth more than $20 billion, boosting economic ties and practical cooperation of Moscow and Beijing and sending across a message to Washington that its “biggest enemies” have joined forces. During his visit Xi Jinping not only emphasised on his sympathy for the Russian President, calling him his ‘best friend’ but also resorted to China’s prominent ‘panda diplomacy’, by providing the Moscow Zoo with two pandas, demonstrating the deepened diplomatic and strategic relations between Russia and China. In reciprocation, Putin surprised Xi Jinping with presents and a reception for his 66th birthday on 15 June, before the two attended the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Tajikistan.

How will the foreign policy harmonization of China and Russia, which comes in the face of their growing distance and resentment with Washington due to the United States (US)-imposed sanctions and tariffs, impact their bilateral relations with the newest SCO members – India and Pakistan? Considering that Russia supported India’s membership into the SCO as a counterweight to China while Beijing responded by inducting its ally, Pakistan, a certain, yet uneasy, political equilibrium was achieved.

During the Cold War, India was a de facto ally of the Soviet Union against China and the US, while the relation between USSR and Pakistan was deeply troubled, owing to the fact that Pakistan was an essential conduit of Americans for the latter’s fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, alongside with Islamabad being also well groomed by Beijing.

In an exclusive interview with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, published on 13 June, by the Russian broadcast Sputnik, Khan argued that the current post-Cold War scenario has rearranged the power centres and allowed for the creation of new allegiances as it’s visible from Pakistan’s strategic military and economic interests currently focusing more on its regional neighbours than the West, while India is getting closer to the US. He further stated that Pakistan is looking upon strengthening its defence and security cooperation with Russia and acquiring some sophisticated military technology, alongside with continuing holding annual joint military trainings. And indeed, since Moscow and Islamabad signed an agreement to cooperate in the area of military defence in 2014 and Russia lifted its embargo on selling defence equipment, Pakistan began purchasing high-end Russian military technology and arms. In addition to that,  Russia believes Pakistan is an essential part to its strategic objectives in Afghanistan, since Islamabad could play the role of a peace broker between the Taliban and the Afghan government. That recent rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan has unsurprisingly triggered Indian fears and apprehensions of having the years-long cordial relationship of Kremlin and New Delhi negatively affected. Similarly, Russia has observed with concern the growing Indo-US strategic partnership, particularly in the field of defence.  

Yet, what one might perceive as a major friction between the two nations is in reality nothing more than a manifestation of the transactional nature of their relationships with Pakistan and the US, respectively. What the two countries must understand is that Moscow’s newly established partnership with Islamabad does not come at the expense of, neither is it aimed against, India; likewise, India’s relationship with the US does not jeopardise its dealings with Russia. Such analysis of the contemporary (South) Asian geopolitical landscape would appear oblivious to the numerous nuances and sensitivities in the foreign policies of the countries involved.

To illustrate, by signing in 2018 the $5 billion S-400 Air Defence Missile deal with Russia, India demonstrated its commitment to the relationship with Kremlin, despite the threat of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). In a similar fashion, as analysed by Dr. Petr Topychkanov, Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and an expert on South Asia and Nuclear Proliferation, despite rumours and unsubstantiated statements on behalf of Russian officials about Moscow’s involvement in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – Beijing’s pilot project of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – such scenario remains highly unlikely considering that the CPEC goes through the disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan, part of Jammu & Kashmir, Russia would not like to get into. In addition, as Dr. Topychkanov elaborated in his interview with EFSAS, considering that the CPEC encompasses various sectors of the Pakistani economy, Russia recognizes the difficulty in being part in any economic project in the country, which would be part of the wider CPEC umbrella. Nevertheless, Russia still acknowledges the vast economic opportunities of its potential cooperation with Pakistan, visible from its bids for the RuPak Railway line via Afghanistan and numerous other infrastructural and energy endeavours, yet the Kremlin remains sensitive to the plight of New Delhi and delicately attempts not to get associated with the Jammu & Kashmir issue.

Having said that, Russia finds itself in a conundrum; for how long will the country be able to maintain its, somewhat, silent policy vis-à-vis Jammu & Kashmir, and especially regarding growing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and fundamentalism in the region. The more, when India, China and Pakistan are all, currently members of the SCO, which declares as its major objectives, the design and implementation of effective counter-terrorism strategies and assurance of peace and security among its members. For those purposes, the SCO even established a specific body responsible for the coordination of relevant counter-terrorism activities and intelligence sharing, called the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). Joint military exercises between member States have been also regularly carried out with the purposes of fostering cooperation and coordination against violent extremism, separatism and terrorism, and maintaining regional peace and stability.

Although in the Central Asian Republics, RATS has proven to be largely successful in terms of thwarting terrorist activities and fighting cross-border extremist organisations, its performance in the region of South Asia appears to be rather poor. As Alexey Kupriyanov, Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and Research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has argued:

“The experience of the past 18 months has shown that while RATS worked smoothly in the “group of six” format, it was entirely unfit to coordinate the activities of the national security services of India and Pakistan, which openly accused each other of supporting terrorism. Essentially, the issue of terrorist groups being active in South Asia was taken off RATS’ table. On the one hand, this allowed both the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and the SCO as a whole to avoid paralysis during another flareup of the India–Pakistan crisis. On the other hand, it called into question its value as a body coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of all the SCO member states. The national security services of India and Pakistan proved unable to latch onto the “Shanghai spirit” that is often mention in connection with the SCO, and it would be difficult to expect things to develop otherwise: essentially, these two states are locked in a permanent war with each other”.

As a matter of fact, during the latest SCO Summit in Bishkek, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the audience arguing that countries which support terrorism should be held accountable and isolated, clearly hinting at Pakistan. The two countries did not hold any formal meetings, apart from exchanging the usual ‘pleasantries’ on the side-lines of the Summit. Following the Pulwama attack in February 2019, when the Pakistani-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammed killed more than 40 members of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force in the Indian administered part of Jammu & Kashmir, various security experts and government officials raised the opinion that the SCO could act as the best platform for defusing Indo-Pak tensions and facilitating peace-talks between the two nuclear-armed enemies, yet unfortunately any such scenario did not materialise. In return, it proved that until and unless RATS restructures its activities and methodologies, in order to tackle the endemic radicalization and terrorism in South Asia, the SCO’s objectives in the region will remain mere illusions.

In contrast to the current US foreign policy under the Trump administration which has largely shown America’s lack of reliability vis-à-vis the Eurasian region, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish-American political scientist and geostrategist, who served as US National Security Advisor in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, once concluded, “Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy will be played”.

His words reverberate the truth of today, with the current global superpowers contending for influence and ascendancy in the region.