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Can India Route Its Fight Against Terrorism Via the SCO?

The challenges of an attempt by the SCO to actually “counter” terrorism are vast within the organisation.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
The challenges of an attempt by the SCO to actually “counter” terrorism are vast within the organisation.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his second trip to China in as many months as he took part in the meeting of the leaders spearheading the Beijing-led and dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping initially designed for China’s outreach to Central Asia, but one which has over time expanded to accommodate its growing global and regional clout.

In September 2018, India along with other SCO member states, including Pakistan, will take part in a multi-nation counter-terrorism drill in the Ural mountains of northern Russia.

The narrative was given a boost during Modi’s visit by India’s Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale, who said “SCO has been working and will continue to work in counter-terrorism.”

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While counter-terrorism seems to be highly prioritised within the SCO’s agenda, with Pakistan being a permanent member along with Afghanistan and Iran being observing members, the output of what is another multilateral institution in an increasingly globally inward-looking nation-state system in the West is a challenge in itself.

While the pictures coming from the SCO summit were drastically different, and upbeat, compared to those coming out from the fractures of the G7 summit in Quebec, Canada, the global narratives on countering terrorism in fact rely more on regional inter-operability than the idea of a globally rallied effort.

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    (Photo: PTI)
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    (Photo: PTI)

Problems Aplenty for SCO to Actually “Counter” Terrorism

The challenges of an attempt by the SCO to actually “counter” terrorism are vast within the organisation, with glaring divergence in views and geo-political ambitions of the SCO members. The joint declaration released from Qingdao, China, is a good study of this kaleidoscope.

The declaration states, for example, a generalised condemnation of all types of terrorism. It offers crevasses to accommodate individualistic lines of the member states. For instance, the communiqué states, in relation to the Middle East, that it recognises the “growing threat from foreign terrorists who return to their countries to continue their terrorist and extremist activities within the SCO.” This gives cushion and precedence to Russia’s involvement in Syria, one that has been quietly backed by New Delhi.

Closer to home, the document also states that the “interference in domestic affairs of other states under the pretence of combating terrorism is unacceptable, as well as the use of terrorist, extremist and radical groups for one’s own purposes”, a line that Islamabad has also, ironically, signed with a straight face.
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The fact that Pakistan is a participant to such a construct already significantly devalues any serious chance for the SCO leading any kind of resolute effort in the field as a single entity. Former Chinese Ambassador to India and Pakistan Zhou Gang explained that on the SCO’s counter-terror mechanism “Pakistan will make some compromise”. The reality, however, may stand at a very different juncture despite the hypothesis that China may pressure Pakistan to curtail its state-sponsored militant groups operating in the Kashmiri theatre to protect its own interests.

Beijing till date opposes a ban on the Mumbai attacks mastermind Masood Azhar of UN-designated terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, and has blocked India’s bids to do the same at the UN. This, alone, showcases the false halo around the SCO’s counter-terrorism narratives and the challenges it faces.

China Yet to Show Blueprint to Distance Global Jihadist Groups

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, shakes hands with Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain, right, next to Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, after a joint press conference for the SCO Summit.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, shakes hands with Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain, right, next to Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, after a joint press conference for the SCO Summit.
(Photo: PTI)

China’s aims against terrorism are limited to Islamist insurgencies in its restive Xinjiang province, an area the state today successfully surveils and controls with an iron fist. Groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, also known as East Turkistan Islamic Movement) and ethnic Uyghur militant violence are not existential threats to China, however, they have the potential to be major irritants if left unchecked. Beijing’s ideological bend allows it to suppress and control political, social and economic agendas in Xinjiang to make sure Islamist ideologies and global jihadist groups keep distance.

The TIP, for example, has released propaganda from both the Afghan and Syrian jihadist theatres, fighting with the Taliban in the former and Al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter.

Despite the views that China will reign in Pakistan’s support for jihadist groups to protect its investments in the country, a viable blueprint to achieve the same from Beijing remains to be seen.

From New Delhi’s perspective on terrorism, it hopes to use the SCO as another multilateral platform to put pressure on Pakistan, a strategy the Indian government believes, much debatably, is bearing fruit.

Islamabad’s reactionary approach to being pushed into a corner over terror is to enact military campaigns around its restive tribal badlands around the Durand Line, its contested borders with Afghanistan. However, very little attention is given by the global community towards its support for terrorism on the other side of its contested border with India. These discrepancies are not going to be entertained beyond a point in forums such as the SCO.

SCO: Ideologically & Geo-Politically Fractured

The SCO is ideologically and geo-politically too fractured to have any collective mechanisms on issues such as terrorism.

There are no ideological bridges of commonality that, for example, exist in similar Western alliances, and the vastness of unresolved political issues between countries such as India and China and India and Pakistan makes counter-terror cooperation sound almost chimerical.

At the end, even exercises such as the SCO counter-terrorism drills are expected to be nothing more than photo ops, while India’s genuine concerns such as Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism will in all probability only find New Delhi listening to its own echoes within the SCO.

(The author is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He also curates ORF’s ‘Tracking ISIS Influence in India’ program. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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