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June 23, 2017

Pakistan’s SCO membership: Domestic roadblocks ahead


June 23, 2017


Pakistan, along with India, has been admitted as a Full Member by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at its AstanaSummit in Kazakhstan. Existing SCO leaders have hailed Pakistan’s entry as carrying‘historic significance’.

All stakeholders are excited at Pakistan’s entry into SCO. Pakistan is happy because, the SCO membership allows it to deal with issues with India and Afghanistan under the SCO Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, which is second most important document after SCO Charter. The membership also provides opportunity to increase trade and bilateral relations with previously ignored Eurasian countries like Kazakhstan and Russia.

China: The SCO membership increases existing all-weather Chinese relationship with Pakistan to new levels. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is already included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) asa flagship project. The SCO membership upgrade could cement these ties.

More importantly, it allows China to find find new ways to resolve regional hotspot issues including continued terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border tensions on Line of Control with India. China could seek multilateral frameworks in addition to bilateral dialogues or restart the stalled processes.

India: As a new SCO member, India is seeking regional stability so its trade and export volumes could meet its GDP growth potential, highest in the world. Afghanistan: Struck by terror, deaths and destruction, Afghanistan, which has an Observer status in the eight-member body, Afghanistan will welcome the emerging Chinese leadership role in resolving its long-standing issues under stalled Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) mechanism in addition to bilateral meetings. The QCG includes China, US, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There’s a fundamental difference between the existing six members and the new two. Leading the SCO 6 and achieving short terms goals was easy, given strong central leaders in these countries and their form of government whatever you may call them. Pakistan, the new member, is a democracy, one which is very fragile, 14th on the Fragile States Index.

China knows our fragility. A week before the Astana Summit, China had conveyed its expected outcome. Speaking at a briefing in Beijing on June 1, spokesperson of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying said China hoped Pakistan and India would improve bilateral relations after becoming the full members of SCO. ‘We hope that Pakistan and India will inject new impetus to the development of SCO.’

However, building up to Astana summit, look what happened on all fronts within the fortnight:

Afghanistan: Kabul was hit by one of the worst suicide attacks in recent years killing 150 people. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that ‘Pakistan continues to host terrorist sanctuaries’ and that it ‘still believes that sponsoring terror is a controllable tool that can be switched on and off as part of the means to achieve goals.’ That was a huge accusation.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Astana Summit made an attempt to find a way forward to repair trust with Afghanistan. Both sides agreed to use stalled Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) mechanism. Americans have welcomed this. This is work in progress.

India: Tensions mounted on the Line of Control (LoC) with India. Only a day after the Astana Summit, Pakistan’s army chief visited troops after the LoC violations, indicating things were turning worse. A day later, Pakistan Foreign Office summoned Indian Deputy High Commissioner to protest on the ceasefire violation.

It was against this backdrop that despite being under one roof, PM Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi could not go beyond customary greetings and have a bilateral meeting. An opportunity to repair relations was wasted.

Post-SCO Summit, Russia has reportedly offered its help in resolving Pakistan-India issues. Indian media and government denied Russia did.

China: A week before the Astana Summit, the kidnapping and reported killing of two Chinese nationals from Quetta (the IS announcement of their killing came around the time the summit was in progress) would have put Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Sharif in an awkward position during the customary farewell calls.

Indian media had a field day that day calling Xi snubbed Pakistan PM and skipped meeting with him over anger on the killings. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called this ‘nonsense’ and an editorial in China’s official Global Times made it clear that the two Chinese were recruited by South Korean missionaries and sent to Pakistan to conduct illegal missionary work in terrorism-hit Quetta in Balochistan province where several CPEC projects including Gwadar Port are placed.

The killings could bring strain in the relationship of two iron-friends as China will investigate this and take up with both civil and military leadership. Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff was in Beijing to meet military leadership there. Billions are being spent on the security of Chinese nationals in CPEC and a special security division has been created.

Not a good news when the only neighbour happy with Pakistan is China.Perhaps this is what Chinese President Xi Jinping had referred to in his opening address at Astana: ‘Recent acts of terrorism in this region show that the fight against three forces (of terrorism, separatism and extremism) remains a long and arduous task. ’Russia: (This is on a less worrying note.) Pakistan is warming up to Russia and trying to increase trade volumes with it. However, in Sharif’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Putin, both sides acknowledged that they could not take the volumes to the level they had hoped for since they met in Ufa at the 2015 SCO Summit.

The SCO’s Pakistan challenge is compounded even more when seen in the light of domestic politics. For months, Prime Minister Sharif’s position has been weakened after the probe by a Joint Investigative Team (JIT) set up by Supreme Court in Panama Papers which names two of his sons for keeping unaccounted-for offshore wealth. The PM, his two sons and brother, Punjab ChiefMinister Shahbaz Sharif, have appeared before the JIT and going by his media talk, Sharif is defiant. Which may means messy days ahead.

Sharif’s four years have been marred by domestic wrangling and he could pay very little attention to more significant issues facing Pakistan, including regional aspirations or ties with neighbours, much also because Pakistan’s foreign policy is run by powerful military.

Pakistan’s media and politics duo (coupled with militants wreaking havoc on a fragile Pakistan) could be blamed for much of the loss of opportunities that come Pakistan’s way. Take the timelines of SCO and ties with China alone for example:

In 2014, the Chinese President Xi Jinping could not visit Pakistan because of dharna by the opposition PTI party, led by Imran Khan. Xi was to announce investing $46 billion in CPEC. This was delayed for a year. In June 2015, when the SCO Summit took place in Ufa, Russia, no Pakistani media accompanied PM Sharif where he met Indian PM in addition to Russian and Chinese Presidents. At Ufa, Pakistan’s Full Membership to SCO was approved for further paperwork. It was also at this summit that President Xi broke to the world that CPEC had reached the stage of implementation. So the news that needed to come from Pakistan’s state media came from Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.

In November 2016, PM Sharif had to cancel his participation in the SCO Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, only at the last minute because of 2 November lockdown announced by - guess who - Imran Khan’s PTI party.

In May 2017, when PM Sharif and his four chief ministers were in Beijing for China’s global Belt and Road Forum being attended by 29 foreign heads of states or governments, 10 labourers were killed in Gwadar and a convoy of Senate’s Deputy Chairman’s was attacked in Balochistan, killing another 28. Gwadar and Balochistan were the two keywords that would have featured on Sharif’s proud speech in Beijing, highlighting progress on CPEC milestones. The opportunity was turned into a tragedy back home.

So, will Pakistan be able to benefit from the SCO framework to increase economic opportunities for its millions of poor people? How will the relationships with neighbours reshape for better after Pakistan’s SCO membership is upgraded? And, will Pakistan’s politicians and media behave differently now that we are in a different league?The jury is still out. However, if there’s a way forward, that’s only possible if the media and politicians mend their ways. When it comes to international opportunities, politicians need to leave behind their petty politics. Instead of conspiring to time their street agitations on every global opportunity, they need to appeal to voters based on their respective performances in their governed provinces.

More than 3,500 TV shows were run on Pakistan’s broadcast media in a year from April 2016 to April 2017. How many shows were organised on SCO, ties with China, CPEC, Belt and Road, or economic growth? These could be counted on fingers.

This media blackout of substantive issues facing Pakistan is further aggravated when combined with false propaganda and fake news on social media and WhatsApp. Because I speak on CPEC and Belt and Road in all parts of Pakistan to all sorts of audiences, people I meet come with all sorts of conspiracies but with hardly any knowledge of what CPEC, Belt and Road or SCO actually stand for.

I was in Beijing for Belt and Road Forum (BRF) last month. Their media had one single window to look out to: how China was emerging to lead the future world through Belt and Road Initiative. BRF was the only show in town. Although I am a nobody, all media outlets, from China Radio to China Pictorial to CCTV, Global Times and People’s Daily were eager to know what overseas delegates like me were thinking and how this could inform China’s future course of action.

SCO membership and China could only help us into the door. It needs to be our own national effort with two pillars — media and politics — playing their visionary and futuristic role, which could help Pakistan reap the benefits and, like China, take our millions out of poverty. This is the only way.

(Writer is President of Institute of Media & Communication in Pakistan — a Pakistan futurist and longtime China-watcher. An award-winning journalist, he blogs at Twitter: @walizahid)