So have India and Pakistan turned a corner? Has China and its SCO partners found a way to bring these bitter enemies together in peace and harmony? Well, let's not get carried away here.
They say politics makes for strange bedfellows, and if that's the case then perhaps we don't have to look any further than the images coming out of Astana last week for proof of that dictum.
Astana, of course, is the capital of Kazakhstan, and last weekend it played host to the annual leaders' summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an intergovernmental body that until this month had just six permanent members: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But this summit, the group's 15th annual meeting, marked a special occasion: the accession of two new members to the organization. And not just any members. India and Pakistan have officially moved up the ranks from observer states to permanent members of the SCO.
That's right, after years of talks and one year of waiting, India and Pakistan have finally become full-fledged SCO members...
...which means two nuclear-armed nations that are bitter arch-rivals and who have unresolved border disputes that very well could erupt in all-out war (even nuclear war) at any moment are now working together in an international security organization. Talk about strange bedfellows.
First, the background for those who have no idea what I'm talking about.
In 1996 the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan began meeting on joint military and security matters under the moniker "The Shanghai Five." In June 2001, having added new member state Uzbekistan along the way, the increasingly inaccurately named "Shanghai Five" formally solidified into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that such an organization would have formed at that precise moment in history. In May of 2001, Brookings Institute stooge Bates Gill had written an op-ed entitled “Shanghai Five: An Attempt to Counter U.S. Influence in Asia?” where he fretted about the group's growing importance, bemused by the fact that an intergovernmental body could be formed that would provide "security-related mechanisms without the participation of the United States" and aghast that they intended to do so without invoking "humanitarian intervention in other countries’ internal affairs." And just five months after Gill penned that op-ed, NATO had arrived on the SCO's doorstep, overthrowing the government of Afghanistan and commencing a military occupation that still defines the region's security relationships today. The Central Asian powers knew what was coming and they braced themselves accordingly.
As I pointed out in my handy dandy Eyeopener report on the subject in 2011, it was none other than recently-deceased arch-globalist Zbigniew Brzezinski (Rest In Pieces) who identified the central importance of this region, which he dubbed "the Eurasian Balkans" in his infamous 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard:
"In his book, Brzezinski wrote that this region is 'of importance from the standpoint of security and historical ambitions to at least three of their most immediate and more powerful neighbors, namely, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, with China also signaling an increasing political interest in the region. But,' he continued, 'the Eurasian Balkans are infinitely more important as a potential economic prize: an enormous concentration of natural gas and oil reserves is located in the region, in addition to important minerals, including gold.'
"Significantly it is this very region–which boasts not only the vast resource and mineral wealth alluded to by Brzezinski but a geostrategically vital location providing all of the key access points to the increasingly important Caspian gas pipelines–where we can find four of the SCO’s founding members, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and one of its guest attendees, Turkmenistan."
Fast forward to 2017. As important as a Central Asian security and economic partnership must have seemed to the geopolitical strategists of 2001, it is that much more important now that the region is a focal point for economic development and geopolitical tension. The "Eurasian Balkans" have been utterly transformed by the War of Terror and the economic revolution that China has undergone in the 21st century. Terrorism is a larger concern than ever in the region, and not just the traditional homegrown terrorism of the country's indigenous Muslim populations. I-CIA-SIS has now arrived on the scene and it is beginning to directly target China and other SCO members. At the same time, China is embarking on its world historical "One Belt One Road" (OBOR) project, attempting to form an economic corridor and maritime trading route that will connect Beijing to Birmingham and every port of call in between.
And so, on the most surface of surface levels, it isn't hard to see why both India and Pakistan would be interested in joining the ranks of the SCO. For them the SCO affords an opportunity to become key players in the region's primary security pact and key beneficiaries of the region's economic transformation.
Pakistan in particular is already reaping the benefits of its close relationship with the rising dragon to the east. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of transportation, energy and economic infrastructure projects under China's OBOR umbrella is bringing a projected $62 billion in direct investment into the country.
Unsurprisingly, CPEC's projects are heavily focused on infrastructure that directly benefits China: One project will see Pakistan's railway network connected to China's own South Xinjiang Railway. Another proposes a new pipeline to pump Chinese-shipped natural gas from the Chinese-run port of Gwadar in Pakistan's south to Chinese-connected pipelines in the country's interior. Similar projects promise what Beijing likes to call "win-win" results, which in reality means that Beijing wins key economic infrastructure and Beijing wins geopolitical clout. But the money for these projects will be flowing through Pakistan's private sector, and that's good enough for the Pakistanis. Some have gone so far as to dub the CPEC a "Marshall Plan for Pakistan." Others, like the head of the Pakistan stock exchange, positively soil themselves on camera while describing the expected economic benefits that the corridor will bring to the nation.
But it is CPEC's very popularity and prospects for success that make it a thorn in the side of India, Pakistan's arch rival. New Delhi would blame the monsoons on the Pakistanis if they could, and anything that empowers their neighbors to the north is a nuisance by definition. And to rub even more salt in the wound, the corridor includes the disputed Kashmir region which is the focal point for India and Pakistan's territorial and military disputes. Although China insists that the CPEC projects are merely economic deals and do not presume to settle any land disputes one way or another, it is doubtful that either India or Pakistan see it that way.
So it was perhaps not all that surprising to see that the one notable hold-out from the recent OBOR extravaganza in Beijing was India. In announcing India's decision to skip the much-ballyhooed first meeting of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing last month, Indian foreign affairs spokesman Gopal Baglay did not mince words:
"Regarding the so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’, which is being projected as the flagship project of the OBOR, the international community is well aware of India’s position. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territory. Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Significantly, India's blistering snub of the OBOR launch party came on the same day that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with China’s Premier Li Keqiang, signing six new trade deals totaling nearly $500 million.
And yet here we are one month later with Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Modi not just sharing a stage with Chinese President Xi, but actually joining him in a joint security and economic development organization. There they are lined up on the stage for the leaders' summit photograph, and there they are shaking hands with big smiles for the camera on the sidelines of the conference. This represents the two leaders' first contact with each other in a year and a half.
So have India and Pakistan turned a corner? Has China and its SCO partners found a way to bring these bitter enemies together in peace and harmony?
Well, let's not get carried away here. No one is seriously expecting the Pakistanis and Indians to lower their weapons and sing kumbaya along the Line of Control. But there have been some signs of detente in the months leading up to the summit in Astana.
Like last month, when Pakistan's Dawn paper published an op-ed claiming that the Pakistani government had a lot to learn from China's own overtures toward India. Sino-Indian relations have themselves been strained for half a century, at least since the Sino-Indian War of 1962. But, as Dawn notes, "China’s policy of putting trade ahead of disputes, and not just verbally emphasising but working practically for regional connectivity, is something that Pakistan must seriously consider emulating." So there are voices being raised, however cautiously, calling for real attempts at cooperation between the two nations.
But make no mistake: the old rivalry is still very much alive and well.
Ironically, one of the eleven documents adopted at the Astana SCO summit meeting was a "Convention on Countering Extremism." Ironic for India, that is, since they consider Pakistan to be the font of all terrorism in the region. And never missing an opportunity to go after Islamabad on the terror front, Modi used his address at the summit to remind his fellow member-states that "unless we take coordinated and strong efforts, it is impossible to find a solution" to terrorism in the region. Although he obviously did not mention Pakistan by name, the Times of India and other publications had no problem filling in the blank.
And so we are about to watch something rather remarkable unfold over the next year, as the rotating presidency of the SCO passes from Kazakhstan to China and President Xi seeks out every opportunity to strengthen the OBOR project through the auspices of SCO cooperation. How Xi threads the India-Pakistan needle when it comes to OBOR and the SCO will be fascinating to watch, but perhaps not as fascinating as the truly incomprehensible sight of India and Pakistan talking about joint security and anti-terrorism operations, and perhaps even participating in joint military drills and intelligence sharing, all of which occurs under the SCO framework.
It's anyone's guess whether this era of joint SCO membership will be the beginning of a turning point in the India-Pakistan relationship, a descent into war, or something in between, but one thing is for certain: when bedfellows as strange as these are thrust together, you know some sparks are going to fly.