THE Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit is being held this week in Samarkand against the backdrop of a geopolitical upheaval challenging the world order. It will be the first in-person meeting since 2019 of the SCO’s Council of Heads of State, and takes place in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war and growing tension between the United States and China. Both Russia and China are members of the forum.
Meanwhile, the end of the US war and return of the Taliban government in Afghanistan — which has observer status at the eight-member SCO — has hugely impacted regional geopolitics.
The conclave will provide an opportunity for the leaders to discuss regional and global challenges and reach some understanding on the common goals and objectives, notwithstanding the conflict among member countries. Prospects of multilateral cooperation are expected to be discussed at the Samarkand meeting, but of major interest is what happens in sideline meetings.
The event will mark the first occasion in a long time that Pakistani and Indian leaders will come face to face. Both countries are members of this Eurasian political, economic and security organisation that covers 40 per cent of the world’s population and 30pc of its GDP. With Iran expected to become a full member, the SCO will be further expanded. Regardless of conflicts among the members, the SCO has provided a useful forum for cooperation on many issues. Bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the conference can also help break the ice.
The Samarkand summit is taking place at a time when the border conflict between India and China has heightened regional tensions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in each other’s presence after a gap of two years. They may also be meeting on the sidelines. It is, to be sure, rather significant that they agreed on troop disengagement along the Line of Actual Control just prior to the summit.
The SCO conference is taking place at a critical time in an atmosphere of fast-changing geopolitics.
Relations between New Delhi and Islamabad remain frozen with no sign of a thaw. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif will be leading the Pakistani delegation. There is lot of speculation about the possibility of the prime minister meeting his Indian counterpart on the peripheries of the two-day conference. However, there is no confirmation yet of any parleys between the two.
However, an unpublicised interaction can never be ruled out. A major concern for Mr Sharif is the domestic fallout of any such interaction with the Indian leader. A politically unstable government facing huge economic challenges cannot afford to get involved in any controversy at this stage.
That was, perhaps, also the reason for Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto to not meet his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at SCO’s Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting in July this year. The two even avoided handshakes despite being in the same room. They made it a point to sit away from each other.
Curiously, however, both sides refrained from attacking each other in their speeches at the meeting. It was argued at the time that despite a “long history of war and conflict”, the Indian government’s actions in India-occupied Kashmir and its anti-Muslim agenda, it was not in Pakistan’s interest to remain disengaged. But, given India’s intransigence over the Kashmir issue, there is no hope yet for any breakthrough and normalisation of the relationship.
It is also not clear whether the Indian prime minister would take any initiative for a bilateral exchange. After the Samarkand meeting, the presidency of the SCO will go to India which will also host the next summit meeting in 2023. Surely, Pakistan will be invited.
Perhaps the most significant event will be the scheduled meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese president, the first one after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While China has expressed solidarity with Moscow, it has not endorsed the invasion. Moscow seeks to bolster ties with Beijing after being slapped with unprecedented Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.
Both Moscow and Beijing are challenging American domination not only in the domain of geopolitics but also in geoeconomics. That has brought them closer into a strategic alliance. Issues related to security and stability, the energy and food crisis and economic cooperation are expected to dominate the discussion at the summit and in the peripheral meetings. The inclusion of Iran in the fold will also broaden the scope; having been under US sanctions for a very long time, the country would support any move to strengthen economic ties among the SCO countries.
Afghanistan will sit in the conference as an observer, the first time it will do so after the Taliban takeover. Although none of the SCO members have recognised the hardline regime in Kabul, most of them favour maintaining close interaction with the new government. There are, however, serious concerns over the return of a regressive order in the country.
The Taliban have reneged on all the promises they made to the international community to allow women access to education and work. One year on, the plight of women has only worsened. Another concern is the continuing presence in Afghanistan of militant groups that directly threaten the security of the SCO countries. Those concerns are expected to be raised in the conference and in peripheral interactions with the Afghan interim foreign minister, who will be leading the country’s delegation. There is no possibility of the Taliban regime being granted full membership of the grouping.
Notwithstanding interstate conflicts, the SCO over the past decade has cooperated in many fields, including counterterrorism. Most importantly, collaboration in the health sector in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has been significant. There has also been some progress on expanding trade and connectivity among the SCO member nations.
A strong Eurasian alliance is not only imperative for economic cooperation but also for regional security. The Samarkand conference is taking place at a very critical time in an atmosphere of fast-changing geopolitics. It is not just what would be discussed at the formal sessions, but perhaps more important is what happens at the sideline meetings.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2022