Khan in Bishkek

Syeda Mamoona Rubab believes the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has great potential for regional cooperation

For most Pakistanis, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on June 14, was reduced by the media to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s diplomatic gaffes, his exchange of pleasantries with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the margins of the meeting, and how close he appeared to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

These things may be significant and might merit attention, but the SCO, which Pakistan formally joined two years ago, has much more to offer to Islamabad as far as its policy towards the region is concerned. The region, too, potentially has lot to benefit from the grouping. The SCO, which includes both India and Pakistan and has Afghanistan as an observer, has acquired even greater significance in view of SAARC’s imminent demise because of India’s persistent refusal to allow it to work.

Terrorism, regional connectivity, peace in Afghanistan and economic and infrastructure cooperation were high on the SCO Summit’s agenda. There is indeed immense potential for the SCO members to cooperate on projects concerning the construction of infrastructure facilities, optical fiber lines and telecom connections, as well as new roads and railway lines to link the member countries. Greater harmony the member states could also impact their positions on political issues affecting the region and the world at large.

The joint declaration signed by the SCO leaders at the end of the summit reflected their collective vision and desire to expand cooperation under the banner of the bloc that has China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as its members. The geographical expanse of the group covers an area of over 30 million square kilometres with a population of 1.5 billion, which makes a quarter of the world’s total population. The leaders, moreover, emphasised their desire to promote the security of the region.

A cursory look at the Biskhek Declaration reveals that the leaders emphasised the centrality of the United Nations in solving the world’s multiple crises especially at a time when the global balance of power is readjusting; demanded full implementation of Iran’s nuclear deal by all concerned parties; unequivocally condemned terrorism and demanded global cooperation in combating it; called for resolution of Afghan and Syrian conflicts through political dialogue; and rejected growing unilateralism and protectionism, and other challenges in international trade, which they deemed to be in breach of rules of the World Trade Organization.

These in a way defined the direction and approach of the regional states, including two major powers Russia and China, on major global issues. However, two, and to some extent three, significant parts of the Bishkek Declaration didn’t capture the attention of the Pakistani media.

The first was the condemnation of the attempts by ‘certain countries’ to build missile defence systems by jeopardising international security and destabilising the world.

The Declaration read: “The Member States reaffirm that unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defence systems by countries or groups of states jeopardise international security and destabilise the situation in the world. They believe the attempts to provide one’s own security at the expense of other states’ security to be unacceptable.”

No country was specifically named, but this denunciation is also applicable to India, which is developing a multi-layered Ballistic Missile Defence system. Pakistan had previously voiced its concerns about India’s plans. The inclusion of this clause in Bishkek Declaration implies that the concerns about missile defence systems are shared by countries in Pakistan’s neighbourhood.

Secondly, seven of eight countries voiced strong support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative of which CPEC is an essential part. This meant an overwhelming rejection of Indian reservations about the project.

The Declaration noted: “The Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan reaffirm their support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and praise the results of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. They note the on-going work to implement this initiative together, including the efforts to align the Eurasian Economic Union projects with those under the Belt and Road initiative.” China, the seventh country, is the sponsor of BRI, leaving behind India alone on the issue at the SCO.

Indian reservations about Belt and Road Initiative were manifest from its absence from Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) held in Beijing held last April. The Forum was attended by 5,000 participants from more than 150 countries and 90 international organisations. It was the second consecutive occasion that India stayed away from a BRF meeting, where leaders from countries participating in the project discuss the progress made, their concerns, and project’s future direction.

The Declaration also placed special emphasis on “promotion of the equal and mutually beneficial cooperation in using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”. The SCO members, who are NPT signatories, reaffirmed their commitment to the non-proliferation regime, its goals and principles and strict compliance with the provisions of the treaty. These assertions strengthen Pakistan’s position on non-proliferation and its quest for access to peaceful nuclear technology. Islamabad, which intends to benefit from nuclear technology for country’s development, finds itself at a disadvantage as compared to India, which is benefitting from the exceptional treatment being extended to it by Nuclear Supplier Group members due to US backing. It should be recalled that India earned NSG waiver in 2008 through US Support, which allows it to avail all privileges of a full NSG member by carrying out nuclear trade.

At the same time the emphasis on NPT is important, because it is one important consideration blocking India’s admission into NSG as it is a non-NPT country. Kazakhastan, which agreed to consensus on Bishkek Declaration and boasts strongest non-proliferation credentials among 47 NSG members, hosted NSG Plenary this week.

These are few of the substantive elements of the summit that exhibit the closeness of Pakistan’s position on various international issues with the rest of the SCO bloc, as compared to India, whose attempts to straddle competing interests is being tested. It is not only that Narendra Modi looked isolated at the summit, but is also facing growing pressure from US on defence deals with Russia, including on the S-400 anti-missile system, and access to Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, in Indian market.

On Pakistan’s participation in the summit, Foreign Office said, “The prime minister’s presence at the Bishkek Summit signified the high importance that Pakistan attaches to the SCO as a trans-regional platform. The prime minister’s comprehensive statement at the summit and the eight-pronged course of action underscored Pakistan’s commitment to contribute substantially to the advancement of the SCO’s goals and objectives in the political, security and economic spheres, it added.

Khan’s engagements with President Xi Jinping, President Vladimir Putin, and leaders from Central Asian Republics was consistent with Pakistan’s desire to strengthen ties with China and Russia and government’s vision of deeper engagement with Central Asia.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at


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