Member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have expressed displeasure over India’s decision to virtually host their 22nd summit instead of holding it in person. The decision was widely interpreted as a deliberate ploy to block the invitation of the Pakistani prime minister to Delhi and send a message to the US. Furthermore, it was perceived as an attempt to transform the SCO into an organization similar to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
The primary objective of establishing SAARC was to enhance economic and cultural cooperation in the South Asian region. It was agreed that the forum should not be used to discuss bilateral disputes. However, this optimism was dashed when SAARC members blamed India and Pakistan for the failure of the initiative. With the inclusion of India and Pakistan in the SCO, there was a hope that the two countries would eventually normalize relations and thereby develop mutual interdependence. The SCO’s potential for cooperation on security and counter-terrorism was seen as an opportunity to positively influence Pakistan-India relations. Unfortunately, both countries have so far disappointed Central Asian nations Russia and China.
There are allegations that India is using the SCO platform for political purposes. A case in point was the last virtual forum where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated allegations of cross-border terrorism and the CPEC route passing through the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Although there is no substance to these allegations, India is using this narrative as an excuse to avoid dialogue with Pakistan. However, exploiting regional forums for this purpose is not good for regional initiative and not good for India.
The failure of regional forums forces states to resort to bilateral and multilateral interventions for cooperation. China has initiated several initiatives, including trilateral initiatives with Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and a quadrilateral initiative involving Uzbekistan. These initiatives are consistent with many of the goals of the SCO. India is also exploring alternatives to regional forums such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). However, alternative or parallel platforms are a distraction and a waste of diplomatic energy.
The failure of regional forums pushes states into bilateral and multilateral engagement.
In the ‘ASEAN way’ of consensus politics, regional forums are struggling to produce results. These forums still hold the potential for broader cooperation in security, economic and political fields. For the SCO, synergy needs to be developed along with the expectation of member states.
To this end, the SCO has established a common diplomatic channel headquartered in Tashkent to build trust among member states. The Centre’s mandate focuses on expanding cultural and people-to-people ties between member states, facilitating mutual visits by delegations and fostering friendly relations between civil society institutions. However, India and Pakistan are the least active members of the forum.
The cases of India and Pakistan are different. India may have political motives in not engaging in public diplomacy at the SCO level to avoid increasing engagement with Pakistan. But India has already developed multi-layered economic, defense and strategic ties with Central Asian states and has made significant inroads into Central Asian educational institutions, think tanks and the media. Bollywood has also helped boost India’s soft image.
Pakistan’s case is different as it still carries the image of a state that supports the Afghan Taliban. It needs to correct this image and seize opportunities. Pakistan’s case is complicated by the bureaucratic structure of the Foreign Office, political influences and divergent priorities of the security establishment.
Interestingly, the Foreign Office is as good at updating its records as other ministries. For example, the Ministry of External Affairs has a dedicated Public Diplomacy Division to promote engagement with various institutions. However, the results of these efforts are limited to paperwork and have no tangible results.
Pakistan’s foreign office has focused on image-building, often overriding the country’s substantive needs. This skewed preference was evident during the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan Criticized Pakistani diplomats They are accused of misbehaving with foreign Pakistanis. Instead of using criticism as an opportunity for introspection, the diplomatic community Objected to the responseA polished image is seen as compromising.
This dichotomy is even more pronounced when we consider the performance of Pakistan’s foreign missions in economic and cultural fields. It is generally agreed that these missions fall short of the expected role in these areas. Pakistani embassies focus primarily on protocol-related tasks, largely neglecting their role in host countries’ academic, cultural and social activities. The conspicuous absence of Pakistani diplomats in such activities not only results in missed opportunities for enriching cultural exchanges and academic dialogue, but also increases a perception of isolation.
Pakistani diplomats show a marked disinterest in connecting with Pakistani scholars visiting local or embassies. In stark contrast, their proficiency in providing protocol to state officials and politicians is remarkable. This selective approach underscores a profound imbalance in their duties, favoring ceremonial procedures over substantive tasks. Pakistani diplomats specialize in appearing professional. There is an urgent call for a more holistic and objective approach, moving beyond the restrictive boundaries of the Protocol.
In an interesting development, despite all political and strategic priorities, Uzbekistan has established a dedicated Urdu language department in a university, with the aim of increasing cultural cooperation with Pakistan. Surprisingly, most of the faculty members of the department have never traveled to Pakistan, yet they visit India. If questioned, the authority concerned may point to the centers of Central Asian studies in a few public universities in Pakistan, but doubts may be raised about their actual contribution. When the Foreign Office complains about resource constraints, they need to provide a satisfactory explanation of professional ethics and dedication to their assigned work.
The SCO still offers an opportunity depending on how effectively Pakistan can engage with the forum.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published on July 16, 2023 in Dawn