The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting at Bishkek received more attention from observers of India-Pakistan relations than from those who seriously consider SCO as an appropriate vehicle for progressing regional dynamics in one of the most populous zones of the world. For India, this was one of the most important multilateral forums it attends. Although India had observer status since fairly long, it gained full membership in 2017. Its practical significance came to be established in 2018 when India and China used the summit meeting at Qingdao in China to reinforce the new beginning made at Wuhan, also in China, by President Xi Jinping and PM Narendra Modi, after the disastrous 2017 standoff at Doklam that almost brought the two countries to the brink of war.
At Bishkek, a year later one of the important things for India was to continue establishing its relationship with China, Russia and the Central Asian nations so that it balances its geopolitical interests which can be sometimes viewed as being skewed towards the US with a distinct pull towards the Indo-Pacific. SCO has come as an effective release from many labels which affect the nature and strength of relations with traditional partner Russia and an equally important neighbour, China. India has no other option than to adopt multilateralism and ensure nothing ever goes overboard in the pursuance of national interests when dealing with contradictions and pressures from big powers.
The prime example is of the US pressure on India to scuttle the $5 billion S-400 deal with Russia and in lieu accept the state-of-the-art F-35 multirole jet, considered one of the world’s most sophisticated aerial platforms. The CAATSA provisions are being mentioned as probably applicable to India should it not relent on the deal with Russians. This is brinkmanship on the part of the US but it too knows that India can ill afford to walk away from its relationship with Russia and China. Wooing and coercing will both form a part of the US strategy while dealing with India. India’s response has to be steadfastly focused on what it perceives its strategic interest.
Did India do well to ignore Pakistan at Bishkek and not respond to any of Imran Khan’s biddings and proposals made over the last few months, especially after the Indian elections? Some observers have stated that at a time when Pakistan appears at its lowest in almost every consideration of national effectiveness, perhaps a more salutary approach and response to it could spell better and more peaceful prospects of bilateral relations in the future. However, the trust deficit is just too far wide and Imran Khan has only been talking of talks, never once mentioning anything about India’s core concern, sponsored proxy terror which emanates from Pakistani territory. Imran Khan and his government are working cosmetically to send positive signals to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which is sitting in judgment on the measures Pakistan has undertaken to undo state support for transnational terror.
Among these was the prevention of Hafiz Saeed leading the Eid prayers in Lahore at the Qaddafi stadium, his favourite Eid haunt with which he has traditionally been associated, and some curbs on fund collections by the groups known for their jihadi focus. With Kashmir’s summer not as operationally hot, it is again being presumed that Pakistan has held its horses in the support which manifests most noticeably in the summer in view of the FATF deliberations. Pakistan does have capability to calibrate the situation in J&K although the Indian security forces have had marked success in two years of Operation All-Out. These operations were being pursued all this time, not for India to get down to talks but to create a more positive and stable security environment for ourselves. There is no need to talk to Pakistan at the first instance that Pakistan wilts. Everything it is doing has a tactical reason behind it. The situation in Afghanistan is also linked to this; it just can’t be seen in isolation. In sheer military terms, a tactical pause is what Pakistan is seeking with India while it focuses on Afghanistan and ensures that Pakistan’s utility is not eroded in the eyes of the US. The US too is extremely keen that Indo-Pak relations stabilise sufficiently such that Pakistan can then devote attention to Afghanistan.
In the light of the rationale explained above, India should continue ratcheting greater pressure on Pakistan through China and Russia. Both these countries perceive threats to their own populations and their peripheral regions from expanding arcs of radical extremism. If Pakistan is forced to retract its support to the so-called friendly terror groups within its own territory, the potential of the spread of both violence and extremist ideology will be substantially curbed. In all this, the Pakistan Army holds the key. It is not transparently known what its opinion and attitude is, and how far it supports Imran Khan’s ‘initiative’. Although the FATF has found hardly a parameter to give Pakistan any positive points, its final outcome is what will spell the reality that India has to contend with. In all probability the grey label may just continue, and international funding to keep bailing out Pakistan from its disastrous financial state. The course that Pakistan then wishes to follow on terror and how far on board the Pakistan Army is, will then dictate the future course for India. Till then Indian diplomacy must continue to cultivate all quarters, especially with China and Russia.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain - Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps