The Irony of SCO: Talking Afghanistan & Terrorism with Pakistan and China

Any expectation of a joint effort on Afghanistan is like throwing good money into a wishing well.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to virtually attend the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) September 16, along with the heads of state of seven neighbouring countries. That includes China — and it’s no secret that Beijing is the driving force in the SCO ever since it was founded in 2001. Having said that, there’s not a lot of driving going on in terms of regional activity. It could though, if members actually decide to work together, especially on Afghanistan and terrorism. With Pakistan also a member, any expectation of a joint effort is like throwing good money into a wishing well. But things could change, if Beijing wishes so.


The SCO Is a Growing Child

The SCO began as the Shanghai Five in 1996, bringing together China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The forum seems to have originated in Beijing’s need to stabilise borders as the end of the Soviet Union brought uncertainty in the Central Asian areas. The five rather quickly agreed on agreements on confidence-building in the military field (1996) and on the reduction of armed forces on the border (1997). Earlier in 1991, Beijing had already begun to settle its borders with the then Soviet Union, and thereafter ensured that this was followed up in the SCO.

In other words, China used the organisation effectively to its own benefit. The original five expanded to include Uzbekistan, and later India and Pakistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia have observer status, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka have a dialogue partner status. Now, the SCO is set to grow, with Iran as a full partner, and Egypt, Qatar and Saud Arabia likely to be dialogue partners. In terms of sheer geographical spread, the SCO area is massive, and only likely to get bigger.


SCO, Dissidents and Terrorists

The present SCO summit meeting is expected to focus on Afghanistan, not in terms so much of the welfare of the brow-beaten Afghans as to prevent terrorism from flowing out into neighbouring countries. This is not a bad idea, given that the threat is real to each.

The trouble is that the SCO’s focus on terrorism in recent years has essentially meant Chinese insistence that members crack down against Uighurs. In fact, it seemed like a mutual arrangement between the original members.

A report notes ‘transnational repression’ among China and Central Asian states, where the SCO is the body that keeps a database that targets dissidents in each other’s countries, and then ‘cooperates’ to deal with it.

This is ostensibly ‘counterterrorism’ cooperation. And no, it doesn’t include Beijing standing tall to back its fellow member, India, on the designation of actual terrorists like Masood Azhar at the United Nations. In addition, the SCO anti-terrorism body, the RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure), remains hollow. The recently held meeting of National Security Advisors agreed to strengthen it, but consider this: at last year’s meeting, the Indian NSA left the meeting after Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Saeed produced a ridiculous map that showed not just Kashmir, but Junagadh and parts of Sir Creek as Pakistani territory. Since then, Pakistan has not let up on allegations of Indian terrorism, most recently producing yet another voluminous dossier alleging Indian terrorism activities, including training (for reasons unknown) Islamic State terrorists.

With this kind of verbiage, there is no likelihood of any actual cooperation within the body. Especially since the Delhi Police has just nabbed a terrorist module, where at least two had trained at a camp in Thatta in Sindh. In addition, considerable IS activity has been seen in Kerala and other southern states. With Pakistan seeing considerable terrorist activity inside its own territory, this is a time when members will derive substantial benefit from cooperation rather than accusatory declamations.


Exercises and Drills

The one area where the SCO has been active is in military exercises, whose purpose seems a little obtuse. The communique in July 2021 of Defence Ministers’ meeting notes that such exercises “enhance cohesion of military command and control bodies and military units” and talks of the dangers of Afghanistan. But what the body can actually benefit from this is unclear. If it’s meant to be a confidence-building measure, it has failed in terms of India-China tensions, following which Delhi had refused to take part in SCO exercises last year. The SCO joint exercises and drills have certainly been of impressive proportions, like the Tsentr 2019, which incidentally also included India and Pakistan.

That apart, the main outcome seems to be that these exercises give China a great opportunity to test its power projection capabilities and also set up the infrastructure for it. For instance, the demands of SCO exercises have led to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) being forced to construct special vehicles to move equipment by train. Ground reconnaissance has been a necessity, as also the use of airborne platforms for mapping terrain. Recently, Global Times pointed with pride at Chinese participation in the ongoing Donguz anti-terrorism exercises in Russia. “As the drill’s only participating country that brings its own main battle equipment, the Chinese troops organized four railway transport groups and two airlift groups that set out from several different locations in China...” it said.

The exercise brings together all members, including India and Pakistan, with India reportedly participating with 200 personnel. Further down the road is the ‘Pabbi-Anti Terror-2021’ exercise in Pakistan. Indian participation seems unlikely. In short, the military aspect benefits Beijing more than anyone else.

Can India, China & Russia Pull Together? 

Given this less-than-admirable record, it seems unlikely that the SCO will suddenly blossom into a forum for active assistance in Afghanistan, which seems to be the main focus of the present meeting. China will expect everyone to step up with assistance, since it has already pledged some $30 million, which it clearly considers quite enough. Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson has been complaining that since the US and its allies are the main ‘culprits’ in Afghanistan, it is their job to provide financial assistance.

Delhi’s assistance has nothing to do with the SCO or China. In fact, its membership is becoming increasingly awkward, given Chinese and Pakistani hostility, and the less-than-healthy relationship with Russia.

But China, Russia and India are also those who stand to lose the most if terrorism breaks out again in Afghanistan. True, Pakistan as a neighbour could suffer, but Islamabad seems accustomed to terrorists both inside and outside its borders.

Logically, it should be possible for the others to cooperate in stabilising Afghanistan, and at the same time ensure that Pakistan’s multifarious jihadis don’t take up residence there. That’s a common objective that could well outweigh the SCO’s very many limitations.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Pakistan    China   SCO 

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