Whither Multilateralism? India's Shadowboxing in the SCO Regional

In a recent spat, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval walked out in protest during an online meeting comprising of national security advisors, hosted by the Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia. The reaction was induced by the new political map used as a backdrop by his counterpart, Moeed Yusuf. Unsurprisingly, there exists a pattern with which New Delhi behaves at multilateral platforms. It is all too visible in other regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the organization that has thus increasingly become redundant. India’s conflictual pattern will likely continue to impact the working of multilateral organizations. However, SCO can provide an opportunity for further dialogue due to converging interests.

Relying on confrontation at international forums contradicts the underlying spirit of multilateralism. According to a World Bank report, South Asia is “one of the least integrated regions in the world” and the persistent show of India-Pakistan rivalry has hindered regional cooperation. India’s preference lies in maintaining relations at a bilateral level rather than pursuing a collective regional agenda and certainly SAARC is a case in point. The organization comprises eight member countries which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. While the forum aimed to enhance regional cooperation and act as a catalyst for development in the region, the political realities of the region have kept the member states to remain ambivalent towards its functionality.

Relying on confrontation at international forums contradicts the underlying spirit of multilateralism. According to a World Bank report, South Asia is “one of the least integrated regions in the world” and the persistent show of India-Pakistan rivalry has hindered regional cooperation.

Since its inception, SAARC has become hostage to the animosity that exists between the arch-rivals. India’s growing problems with Pakistan over either Kashmir or terrorism has left the platform at an impasse. Even though the organization’s mandate discourages the discussion of any bilateral disputes between member states, the provision seems to be neglected often. Contrary to the long-held view, the “dysfunctional reputation” of SAARC is not only limited to the India-Pakistan troublesome dyad but also extends to the former’s relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The mistrust between these member states is a result of India’s deeply entrenched domestic political structure. India refused to attend the 19th SAARC Summit, hosted by Islamabad in the aftermath of the Uri attack. The action led all other members to boycott the summit in protest, besides Nepal. Similarly, in the last functioning summit held in Kathmandu in 2014, Pakistan had blocked proposals led by India which were related to South Asian connectivity and kept itself away from the satellite project proposed by New Delhi. In addition, there came a shift in New Delhi’s focus as it gradually moved away from SAARC to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which can be seen as an attempt to create a similar platform without Pakistan but it has somewhat proved to be a non-starter.

Arguably, India’s conflictual leaning might not create a major disruption in the functionality of the SCO as the dynamics and the organizational concerns are vastly different. The SAARC experience has been largely negative due to the unequal power symmetry between its member states. However, in the case of SCO the presence of China and Russia as key players might provide a breakthrough. The reactionary politics that govern India-Pakistan relations does not concern the SCO members to the extent that they would let it impede the organizations’ agenda. The fact is that China and Russia have close bilateral relations with Pakistan and India, respectively, and the prospect of the latter’s friction hijacking the rationale of the forum is comparatively low. From a geopolitical logic, the bilateral association of both China and Russia can be seen as a counterbalance action. It would be interesting to witness how the platform manages to bring together the diverging interests of India and Pakistan. There lie great opportunities for the two regional arch-rivals to increase their collaboration with Central Asian countries to gain energy connectivity. It can be cited as the main reason for both Pakistan and India to sign the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (TAPI) agreement. In terms of cooperation with regards to counterterrorism and other security matters, there is a probability that the countries will cooperate and are likely to practice restrain due to the varying economic and political realities of the SCO.

The South Asian region should understand the importance of sustaining regional multilateral platforms and the reactionary tirade must take a backseat. Deep political entanglements and domestic politics have steered the region into havoc. Now with the nationalistic sentiment running at an all-time high coupled with mistrust, scepticism, and aggression further questions the longevity of multilateral engagements. The regional actors must maintain a dichotomy between bilateralism and multilateral cooperation. Projects that require regional cooperation will not progress without keeping the two domains separate and forums will be embroiled in a repetitive blame cycle. In the end, it boils down to countries and how they manage their interests and those of others reach an accommodating position. Bilateral claims must not be resolved at the expense of the multilateral framework.

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a former Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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