With India and Pakistan ready to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif expected in the Kazakh capital Thursday, New Delhi and Islamabad, The Indian Express has learnt, will be taking steps towards a one-of-a-kind cooperation by committing to “joint military exercises” under the rubric of counter-terrorism cooperation. While Indian and Pakistani military officials have served together under the United Nations flag, this will be a rare occasion — when that happens — to conduct joint military exercises along with other SCO countries — China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. By joining the SCO, the two countries will be part of the Tashkent-based Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) which conducts such exercises.
Iskander Akylbayev, senior research fellow at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies in Astana, and one of Kazakhstan’s leading experts on SCO, told The Indian Express: “There are certain concerns, specifically how India and Pakistan will cooperate in the field of counter-terrorism. Both states have a long tradition of mistrust and rivalry on diverse array of issues… limited counter-terrorism cooperation under the SCO umbrella is possible… yet both states will prefer multilateral rather bilateral form of military exercises.”
Parallel to the Bishkek Summit, the first SCO military exercise Peace Mission-2007 was held in the southern Urals. The militaries of all SCO members participated in this nine-day exercise which focused on counter-terror operations. It involved 6,500 soldiers, including some 2,000 from Russia and 1,700 from China, smaller company-size units from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, a special police platoon from Kyrgyzstan, and a team of 20 Uzbek military officers. About 500 combat vehicles and 80 combat aircraft from China and Russia were also deployed.
“The dominance of Russia and China was evident in the exercise,” said Meena Singh Roy, a senior fellow at Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). A similar exercise took place again in 2009 under Peace Mission-2009.
Both Modi and Sharif are expected to land on Thursday and then attend a banquet hosted by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The rivalry between the two countries is a talking point that is bothering both experts and officials.
Alexander Lukin, who is Director, Center for East Asian and SCO Studies, MGIMO-University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations under the Russian Foreign Ministry), said, “India and Pakistan are going to join. This will seriously transform the organisation. It will be much more representative, the largest regional organisation in the world. One would not be able to describe it as Russia and China dominated or a club of dictators. There is also a hope that a new push will be given to economic cooperation which is not very active at the moment, as well as to solving the problems of Afghanistan.”
With all eyes set on a possible pull-aside between Modi and Sharif in this gleaming 20-year-old capital of Kazakhstan, Lukin discounted the rivalry affecting the regional grouping, “There is a lot of rivalry at the grouping already. I hope that, on the contrary, it will provide a new and important platform for India-Pakistan dialogue.”
While Indian and Pakistani officials said there has been no request for a meeting from either side so far, nobody here is ruling out the possibility. Many remember the sudden meetings between them in the leaders’ lounge in Paris at the Climate Change summit in November 2015. That image of both sitting on a sofa, breaking away from protocol, is still fresh.
P Stobdan, who has been India’s envoy to Kyrgyzstan and a senior fellow at IDSA, said when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Sharif had an informal meeting in Beijing recently during the Belt and Road Initiative summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping had also joined at the end. “Putin and Xi supposedly had offered to play a mediatory role between Sharif and Modi at Astana,” Stobdan told The Indian Express.
While that may be easier said than done, since positions have hardened in the last year or so — from the Uri attack to Kulbhushan Jadhav, ties have plumbed new depths.
According to Stobdan, Sharif is said to have conveyed in advance that a meeting would be useful only “if India assures cessation of hostilities against the innocent people of Kashmir.” That kind of redline, many feel, could be a non-starter.
But whether Modi and Sharif meet or not, one of the most valuable takeaways from joining SCO is that India is ready to cooperate fully with the Regional Anti Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the SCO for exchanging information and working out a common strategy for combating terrorism, Indian officials said.
Meena Singh Roy said, “Ever since its creation in 2004, RATS has focused on collective counter-terrorist training and has coordinated with member-states specifically over the Winter Asian Games in Astana in 2010 and during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The main objective is to establish a mechanism of communication between the SCO member-states in order to facilitate greater coordination between each state’s internal security organs. It organises regular meetings of border agencies to discuss effective means to tackle the existing challenges. It has prevented 600 terrorist attacks. Last year, 400 terrorists were arrested and more than 100 extradited. Over 900 anti-terrorist personnel have been trained till 2014.”
An observer country at the SCO since 2005, India applied for full membership in 2014. The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic and military organisation which was founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
On Thursday, a bilateral meeting between Modi and host Nazarbayev is planned, followed by dinner. Officials said that a bilateral meeting between Xi Jinping and Modi is also being worked out over the next two days, their first after the Belt and Road Initiative summit last month, which was boycotted by India.