The most recent armed clash between the two nuclear powers India and Pakistan demands a renewed focus on both international security in South Asia and Russia’s foreign policy strategy in this region.
What distinguishes this clash is that it is the first since Pakistan and India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And yet one of the goals of their simultaneous accession to the SCO was to use its mechanisms for building trust and settling conflicts between the two countries, given that the SCO has accumulated a wealth of experience in this area. Let’s recall that historically the SCO is the descendant of the Soviet-Chinese commission on confidence-building measures on the border and prevention of border incidents. Therefore, the SCO’s initial purpose was expressly to settle conflicts like the one that is now taking place between India and Pakistan. During the years of its existence, the SCO has accumulated a wealth of experience in transforming the initial mistrust between Russia and China into their current comprehensive strategic partnership and in resolving differences between Central Asian countries.
Therefore, the current escalation of the conflict between the two SCO members is also a test of the organization's solidity and efficacy. These armed clashes between India and Pakistan essentially mark the first military conflict between SCO members. There has been only one other similar incident – the large-scale, bloody ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh in 2010. Luckily, they did not trigger an armed conflict between the two states.
Today, the SCO’s effectiveness is being challenged in an entirely new way. More to the point, the SCO is now testing whether the accession of India and Pakistan was justified. Ultimately, the SCO’s future stability and reliability greatly depend on its ability and the ability of its member states to act with energy to successfully settle the Indo-Pakistani conflict, achieve a ceasefire and restore trust.
Russia’s position in relations between India and Pakistan underwent a marked evolution after their accession to the SCO. Since the Afghan military campaign of the 1980s, Pakistan often has been perceived negatively through the prism of this conflict. On the contrary, India has traditionally been considered a friendly partner in our society since Soviet times, facilitated by active interstate contacts (both bilateral and in the BRICS format) and public initiatives.
It is also worth mentioning the enormous numbers of Russian tourists that visit India and a general interest of many Russians in Indian cultural and spiritual heritage. Incidentally, this demand was met by India with a fairly productive soft power policy promoting a positive image of India in Russia and a broad range of its cultural initiatives. As a result, the Russian public adopted a quite unambiguously pro-Indian position when it came to the choice between India and Pakistan.
This has started to change in the past few years. Bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan have picked up considerably with Pakistan’s accession to the SCO and the ongoing settlement process in Afghanistan. Russia-Pakistan dialogue began to acquire the features of a trust-based partnership. Cooperation between the defense ministries of the two countries became an important element here. The Friendship-2018 bilateral military exercises took place in the mountains of Pakistan last summer. In February 2019 Russia was represented at the Aman international naval drill conducted by the Pakistani Navy. The two countries are also developing defense industry cooperation. The expert dialogue between their think tanks is gaining momentum both as regards regional security and bilateral relations.
New opportunities for intensifying Russia-Pakistan economic cooperation have started appearing recently. Additional prospects are offered by the formats of the large-scale One Belt, One Road pan-Eurasian initiative that was set forth by China and supported by Russia. A key component, the China-Pakistan economic corridor, is already being successfully realized. It is aimed at upgrading transport and other infrastructure in Pakistan and developing the new Gwadar Port in the west of the country. So, the southern radial branch of the new Silk Road has already started working.
Experts in Pakistan are interested in uniting this southern route with the potential northern route that would stretch from the main line of the new Silk Road to the Arctic ports of Russia. In this way, it will be possible to build a trans-Eurasian meridian network through the entire continent from the Arctic to the warm seas of the south. In this context, projects on building road, gas transit and other infrastructure on the western section of the border between Russia and China in Altai are beginning to acquire a pan-Eurasian rather than just bilateral dimension. If they come to fruition, the route of the new road will receive two full-fledged branches − to the south and the north − thereby forming a sustainable Russia-China-Pakistan geo-economic line.
External factors are also enhancing the mutual interest of Russia and Pakistan, such as the continued deterioration of ties between Pakistan and the US. At the same time, we are seeing the consolidation of geopolitical ties between India and the US. New Indo-Pacific projects that unite the US, Australia, Japan and India may lead to a major shift in the balance of power in the region, affecting the interests of both Russia and Pakistan. Sometimes the Indian expert community expresses mistrust of Russia because of what they consider the excessively close Russia-China partnership, as a result of which Russia is losing its independent political image in India. Obviously, viewing Russia exclusively through the prism of Indo-Chinese divergences does not promote trust. Thus, US policy in the region (and probably the potential Indo-US link) serves as an additional external impetus for Russia-Pakistan dialogue.
A no less important issue in Russia-Pakistan relations is the need to create a mutual positive image in the public opinion of the two countries. Earlier, I mentioned the negative influence of the Afghan military campaign in the 1980s on the image of Pakistan in Russia. That said, we often ignore the fact that views of Russia in Pakistani public opinion are also negative. The legacy of the Afghan war had a serious destabilizing influence on Pakistan. It is enough to mention the uncontrolled spread of weapons on its territory, the drug problem, the massive influx of Afghan refugees and their difficulties with the integration into Pakistani society, ethnic strife (especially in Karachi and the Sindh Province, to name a few) and the growth of extremism. In a book on the influence of the Afghan war of the 1980s on Pakistan, Pakistani scholar Imrana Begum even uses the term “Talibanization” of Pakistan to describe the legacy of the war.
As a result, to achieve sustainable trust among the public opinion of the two countries it is necessary for both sides to conduct purposeful and fairly sensitive work, learn to hear each other and openly discuss complicated historical problems without bias and look for ways to overcome them. Incidentally, the successful Russia-China experience of promoting mutual public confidence after a long negative record may be applied here (and the SCO format offers an advantage for this). It is also important to develop bilateral people-to-people ties and exchanges. This task may be facilitated by the recent initiatives of the new prime minister, Imran Khan, to develop tourism in Pakistan and reveal its rich historical and cultural legacy to the world.
In conclusion, Russian society should now adopt a balanced response to the new Indo-Pakistani conflict. This is essential for the SCO’s stability and Russia's national interests in the region. Russia can rely on its successful experience of striking a delicate balance and effectively moderating the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh. Russia is constructing a similar balance in Syria in relation to the majority of external actors in this conflict. It appears that a balanced approach emphasizing good will and trust toward the parties of the Indo-Pakistani conflict and a search for mutually acceptable ways of settling it may be the best response to the recent clash.