Pakistan’s Entry into SCO: Disaster Recipe for Counter-Terrorism Efforts

2024 marks the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is one of Asia’s leading and rapidly growing multilateral forums. It emerged as the successor to the Shanghai Five, a political association driven by China and Russia and accompanied by three former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In 2017, India and Pakistan joined as full members, and Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia were inducted as observer states. With its maiden expansion towards South Asia, the SCO now represents the interests of nearly 45 percent of the world’s population and one-fourth of the global GDP.

After initially being opposed to India’s membership, Beijing later compromised primarily to pave the way for the membership of Pakistan. The change in Beijing’s position was also prompted by the potential for an alliance with India. The ambitious BRI has compelled Beijing to expand its multilateral ties, and the SCO is an important foreign policy tool for this purpose. Pakistan has followed a similar journey to that of India from observer status to full membership of the SCO and for Islamabad this process has been a direct outcome of its durable and strategic partnership with Beijing. Pakistan’s pursuit of SCO membership is both a demonstration of geopolitical and geo-economic concerns and an indication of its foreign policy responses to balance-of-power considerations and growing economic and energy needs.

SCO membership impacts Pakistan’s management of its various alliance partners, in particular its differing relationships with the United States, Russia, and China, and the reconciliation of these nations’ conflicting interests with its own foreign policy goals. The more urgent challenge for Islamabad is the prospect of working with New Delhi under the umbrella of the SCO. India and Pakistan have each made allegations of cross-border terrorism against the other, negatively affecting SCO cooperation on counter-terrorism. Considering this record, the future success of the SCO’s counter-terrorism agenda has become highly questionable.

The inclusion of Pakistan with its “own narrative” about terrorism – has added a further dimension to the SCO’s counter-terrorism agenda. Pakistan has to move forward with its India fixation, especially when addressing important multilateral forums like the SCO. The vast gulf in comprehensive national power between the two nations is clear to all its SCO partners, and their approach would be accordingly framed. Islamabad has no leverage in its SCO membership. It is just being used as a tool by Beijing for its benefit.

China’s continued promotion of BRI (including CPEC) within the framework of SCO would further destabilize the charter of SCO’s stated goals and duties. As a “responsible” SCO member state, Islamabad should come clean in meeting its obligations towards counter-terrorism, especially cross-border terrorism stemming from Pakistani soil.

In a realist interpretation, SCO would be meaningless in fostering cooperation between various states owing to narrowly defined national interests, leading to possible conflicts. Given the continuous exchange of allegations of cross-border terrorism between New Delhi and Islamabad, it may prove difficult for Russia and China to engage both members in meaningful counterterrorism cooperation. Pakistan’s import of its long-standing animosity with India into consensus-driven SCO has significantly diminished the prospects for broader regional cooperation and it has been forcing Beijing and Moscow to choose between them.

Further, the expansion of SCO to embrace Pakistan, has been a source of frustration for Central Asian states. Pak’s entry has diluted the organization’s principal focus on Central Asia proper and introduced new complications and frictions within the grouping, especially between Pakistan and India. Thus, Islamabad’s entry into SCO has made other SCO member states realise finally that its admission has so far proven to a disaster recipe for counter-terrorism efforts in the Eurasian region.

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