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‘Peace for our time’ in South Asia: Can the SCO deliver where SAARC failed?

Varun Nambiar

“I believe it is peace for our time,” a hopeful Neville Chamberlain proclaimed after the now infamous Munich Summit in 1938 with Adolf Hitler. Few speeches have been misquoted and ridiculed as often as Chamberlain’s ill-fated prophecy of peace in what we know — with the benefit of hindsight — was a portent for the most calamitous conflict in centuries. Hitler went back on his word and the Munich Summit became a byword for when diplomacy failed.  

Eighty-five years later, the world finds itself tottering ominously on the brink of another Great Power war in Europe. In contrast, Asia has remained relatively stable and witnessed a momentous rapprochement between archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rapprochement may well be temporary owing to deep-rooted geopolitical fault lines that plague Arab-Iranian relations, but it is nonetheless momentous because it was brokered by an uncharacteristic Chinese intervention. Hitherto loath to expend political capital beyond its immediate neighbourhood, the Chinese willingness to put its considerable weight behind a peace initiative in West Asia is a reflection of Beijing’s ambitions. When viewed in conjunction with recent Chinese attempts to mediate in Ukraine, it is evident that the ‘Middle Kingdom’ seems intent on fashioning itself as the new principal arbiter in Eurasia.  

South Asia’s centrality

South Asia is central to Chinese designs and much has been made in sections of the press of the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Goa. Some have suggested that the SCO, a China-dominated international organization, can help bring lasting peace to South Asia by bringing India and Pakistan together under the same umbrella. In the run-up to the summit, Bilawal Zardari’s decision to attend in person was hailed as a thaw in the works. It was hoped that the visit would provide a much-needed impetus to India-Pakistan relations and eventually result in a normalisation, presumably with both countries resuming full diplomatic and trade ties. Hawks, however, hissed at the idea and pointed to (depending on their nationality) either India’s repeal of Article 370 or the spate of terrorist attacks carried out by Pakistan-based groups in Jammu and Kashmir over the last month as proof of the relationship being beyond redemption. 

Nuanced picture

As the dust settled on the diplomatic pomp and pageantry, a more nuanced picture emerged. There were some positive signs. Credible sources from both sides spoke of the warm reception Foreign Minister Jaishankar accorded to Mr Zardari at the formal dinner to which mercifully, and probably by design, the media was not given access. For a few hours, doves rejoiced at the prospect of a breakthrough. News channels on either side of the Radcliffe Line echoed with murmurs of a handshake between the two diplomats. As if as a reprimand for raising hopes, the bonhomie did not last, and fiery press conferences hosted by the two ministers later undermined much of that positivity. Naysayers in both countries were quick to denounce the entire exercise. 

A word on the SCO’s ability to influence the course of India-Pakistan relations is in order. An international organization, the SCO possesses, under international law, a legal personality distinct from that of its members. It is, in theory, more than the sum of its parts and does have the “maintenance and strengthening of peace, security and stability in the region” in its legally-binding mandate. As with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), however, the SCO cannot operate in a vacuum and is not divorced from the politics of the bilateral relationships between member states. 

The SCO can be best understood as an authoritarian international organization. With the notable exception of India, no SCO member has had any prolonged spell of democracy and civilian rule. Most SCO member states tend to demonstrate a callous disregard for even the most fundamental of human rights and freedoms. It is unclear whether an organization like the SCO will be able to prevent a hot war between members. If anything, two of its chief members, China and Russia, have shown lately that they do not care much for international law and principles such as the prohibition on the use of military force and non-intervention. To expect the SCO to then be an honest broker genuinely interested in bringing lasting peace to South Asia would be unrealistic. The SCO’s China-centric focus is also likely to undermine its effectiveness as an agent of peace because of India’s growing unease with Chinese aggression in the Himalayas. Many in India are already questioning the rationale of India’s membership in what is slowly but surely developing into a club of authoritarian Chinese satellites.

Acrimony in bilateral relations 

Ultimately, international organizations and third countries will be able to do precious little unless an environment conducive to peace prevails at the bilateral level. SAARC failed to serve as a bridge between India and Pakistan because the acrimony in the bilateral relationship tends to hold the organization hostage. The SCO’s power architecture and internal dynamics make it a similarly unlikely source for a lasting solution in South Asia. It can, at best, serve as a venue for high-level diplomatic engagement between the two countries.

The current state of the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship may be best described as an unstable stability. Stability, because the ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir has largely held for over two years, in what is the longest spell of relative calm since the flare-up in 2013. Both countries have also been focused elsewhere. India has devoted a considerable amount of resources to meet the Chinese challenge in Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The fact that Pakistan is unstable, internally divided and economically crippled has meant that the Generals in Rawalpindi must surely spend at least as much time worrying about Imran Khan as they do about fomenting trouble in India. These factors, coupled with low-profile back channel negotiations, appear to have contributed to a palpable easing of tensions.

Durable peace

The current climate could well serve as the foundation of a more durable peace. Equally, it may also prove to be a mere punctuation mark in the story of an intractable conflict. A lot rides on the next year. India goes to the polls in 2024 and Pakistan is supposed to have general elections in October 2023. One may expect those at the helm to play it safe until both sets of elections throw up credible, stable governments and start a peace process in earnest post-2024, but a provocation on the border or a major terrorist attack could easily derail hopes, as they have done several times in the past. 

History’s verdict on Neville Chamberlain has been unduly harsh and his honest yearning for peaceful coexistence has been misinterpreted as nothing but supine appeasement of a self-aggrandising tyrant out to conquer by force of arms. Yet peace bears an enduring promise worth pursuing even in singularly hopeless situations. The world would be a much better place if only it had a few more Chamberlains and no Hitlers. 

Also read: Global Administrative Law Can Fix Sports Governance

Varun Nambiar
Varun Nambiar
Varun Nambiar is a lawyer and research scholar. He is a doctoral candidate at South Asian University, New Delhi. His research area is international law, and he writes on law and international affairs, global governance, the accountability of international organisations, geopolitics and human rights.

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