Illustration by Sahar Mansoor
Illustration by Sahar Mansoor

Pakistan, along with India, was recently granted full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO – whose original members consist of China and Russia, along with the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – is a multilateral organisation addressing issues such as regional security, economic cooperation and confidence building.

Pakistan had aspired to SCO membership for over a decade, raising the obvious question: what does this long-awaited accession mean for Pakistan? In the short term, joining the SCO shall give Pakistan (as well as its arch-rival, India) a seat at a table with two Eurasian powers – China and Russia – with whom Islamabad has cultivated relations, especially in recent years. The tangible strategic or economic benefits Pakistan might attain from full SCO membership, however, are at this point unclear.

To understand why, it is useful to trace the origins of the multilateral forum. The SCO was formed in 2001, a year that is associated with attacks in New York and Washington. But the SCO came into existence before 9/11. Herein lies an important point: the SCO was a response to not the post-9/11 world, but the post-Cold War world. Its antecedent – the so-called ‘Shanghai Five’ – had been in place since April 1996.

The Shanghai Five had not been a formal organisation: Chinese analysts describe it as a mechanism. It had a defined purpose: deepen confidence building along Central Asian borders; identify areas of cooperation between China and Russia and the then newly independent Central Asian republics; open dialogue between heads of state, heads of government and ministers; address common security concerns.

In the post-Cold War world of the 1990s – amidst uncertainty stemming from alleged US unilateralism – the Shanghai mechanism gradually developed as a prominent multilateral mechanism, albeit one that pivoted around Central Asia.

The formal establishment of the SCO five years later was an attempt to institutionalise this multilateral cooperation.

This was done through the adoption of a charter, the establishment of an SCO Secretariat in Beijing, and an anti-terrorism centre in Central Asia. Espousing principles of openness, fraternity, mutual benefit and multilateralism, Beijing projected the SCO as a model for diplomacy.

Put differently, the SCO symbolically illustrated how a Eurasian power such as Russia, the global economic powerhouse that is China, as well as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, that are amongst the poorest countries in Asia, could come together as equals.

Although Western commentators often wondered what exactly the SCO did, the symbol of unity – where once a year heads of state and government came together – found traction in a region then shaken by Tony Blair, George Bush and Anglo-US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In its measured criticism of Anglo-US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the organisation – which repeatedly reminded the world it was not an alliance – projected an alternative multilateral diplomacy that was non-interventionist. It was this SCO – circa 2005 – that Pakistan was eager to join (at this time, Iran had also looked eager to join).

Pakistan’s decade-long aspiration for accession to the SCO has been fulfilled; it has now joined a forum in which Beijing has a leading role, and which China places stock in. How much Pakistan shall benefit economically from the SCO is, however, uncertain, especially given Pakistan’s already central role within Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

It is also noteworthy that 25 years following the independence of Central Asian republics, economic ties between Pakistan and the region remain minimal; it is unclear how these would change with full membership in the SCO. The strategic mileage Islamabad can gain through the SCO is also uncertain, given that India, too, has joined it.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly for China specialists, this expansion in membership marks an expansion in the regional ambit of an organisation that had long been centered on Central Asia. To what extent this portends of new ties between China and South Asia – or for that matter, between Central and South Asia, or Russia and South Asia – is an open-ended question and remains to be seen.

This was originally published in the Herald's July 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.