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India and Pakistan in the S.C.O: Searching for Security or Identity in Asia?

Stylianos Nikias

In July 2015, India and Pakistan became the newest permanent members of the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation (SCO). With a combined population of over 1.4 billion between the two nations, this represents a major addition to the organisation. This is not just in the sheer number of people, territory, and GDP share, but also in terms of the new policy challenges for the SCO that will arise as a result of what can be described as a complex relationship between its two newest members.

Membership to the SCO would see both India and Pakistan increasing the level of engagement with powers in the Asia Pacific region, and allow them to forge individual identities which are distinct from their colonial past. But the omnipresent tensions between the two nations could mean the SCO is used as a multilateral forum for a regional power and security struggle, with each seeking to increase its security relative to the other. In any situation, the emerging superpower that is China is a key beneficiary of India and Pakistan’s participation.

So what are the possible reasons and implications for the ascendancy of India and Pakistan to the SCO?

First, it is important to understand what the SCO seeks achieve as an organisation. The SCO was established in 2001 with the aim of “strengthening… good-neighbourly relations… promoting effective co-operation in politics, trade and economy… [and] making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region”. Member nations other than India and Pakistan include: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO “pursues its internal policy based on the principles of mutual trust… and aspiration towards common development”.

It is interesting that the idea of “mutual trust” is an important element of the SCO’s platform, given the membership of historic rivals, India and Pakistan. Tensions between the two nations can be traced back to the Partition of India in 1947. Today however, the relationship can be said to be strained in relation to continuing border disputes (Kashmir), as well as resources such as oil and water. Both countries are also known to possess nuclear weapons, which we will come to later.

In International Relations, a central theory which is used to explain global events is that of realism. The core premise of this paradigm is that “international affairs is a struggle for power among self-interested states”, in anarchic global order. That is, states seek to benefit in a global system where there is no higher authority than the sovereign state itself. This is seen here to be applicable to India and Pakistan with regards to the SCO.

A number of wars have been fought over the disputed Kashmir region in both countries, and the two states have engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling against one another. The nuclear programs of both India and Pakistan are perhaps a significant reason for both nations being interested in joining the SCO. This is in that the SCO’s “external policy is conducted in accordance with the principles of non-alignment, non-targeting anyone and openness”. As such, India and Pakistan may both see the Organisation as a multilateral arena in which they can assure their own security and power relative to the other, an idea synonymous with realist understandings of international relations.

Further to this, realist conceptions of what is termed as the “security dilemma” may also be applicable in the context of India and Pakistan’s nuclear programs and intentions in joining the SCO. The ‘dilemma’ poses that as one state increases its own security, it decreases that of other states. As a result, this creates a situation whereby interactions between states are fuelled by competition for security and as such, political relationships are strained. This is exhibited by India having conducted multiple nuclear tests which were arguably intended as a display of India’s power against Pakistan, leading to Pakistan responding by conducting its own nuclear tests.

From this, it can be said that the SCO may in fact fit with the broader national interests of both countries in moving to contain the threat each poses to the other through generating regional alliances which perhaps can curb the status quo of each state seeking to increase their security against the other. India and Pakistan’s ascension into the SCO can also be said to have grounding in the realist understanding of “bandwagoning” which is a desire by a state to gain from another by joining forces with the powerful actor. Here, it is argued that India and Pakistan are seeking to reap benefit from the SCO and in particular seek to strengthen ties with China as a rising global power.

China’s increasing power and influence within the international system is particularly evident in its huge economic power. It is currently the second largest economy in the world, and the largest in Asia, with consistently higher annual GDP growth than other developing economies in East Asia and the Pacific. As well as its economic prowess, China holds significant diplomatic power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and is also a recognised as a nuclear armed state. Thus, membership of the SCO is a lucrative opportunity for both India and Pakistan to develop ties with a rising state in the global political arena, and benefit from China’s increasing power.

Whilst we have so far looked at the well-established notion of security as being a major determinant in international affairs, perhaps it is wise to change perspective and consider what other factors may indeed be at play when looking at India and Pakistan joining the SCO. Namely, a focus will be drawn towards how international identity can influence state decision making.

Whereas realist theories privilege the conception of states as central actors that are fixated on security and power, constructivist theory of international relations “emphasizes [that] the role of ideologies, identities, persuasion and transnational networks are highly relevant”. This can thus also be applied in trying to understand Indian and Pakistani intentions in joining the SCO from a different perspective.

Perhaps the most prevalent of such notions is the importance for both states to create their distinctive identities which afford them an individual place within the international state system. With less than a century of modern sovereign statehood, India and Pakistan can both be seen as relatively new states within the global political arena. Representation for both states in multilateral forums is of significant importance in forging relationships and establishing a dynamic in which their respective national interests and priorities can be further pursued. As a regional forum that is fundamentally focused on the development of ties between predominantly non-Western states, the SCO can be seen as an opportunity for this to be achieved for both India and Pakistan.

To some extent, the development of national identities can be seen to be closely related to post-colonialist ideas, whereby it is important for newly autonomous nations to distinguish themselves from their colonial past through construction of their own unique national identity and role within the globalised world. Thus, from a constructivist perspective, it can be argued that India and Pakistan’s desire for membership into the SCO arises from an attempt to remove elements of their collective, Western colonial past in an attempt to pursue new identities as significant states in the SCO as well as in the Asian region more broadly.

Ultimately then, is security or identity the most important factor at play here for India and Pakistan?

The matter of precedence for both countries seems to be security, given that the SCO is first and foremost an organisation which seeks to ensure safety and security of its members through political and economic alliances and organisations. However, it would be unwise to simply discredit identity as not having any basis. This is indeed true in all matters in international affairs, particularly in complex international arrangements such as the elevation to full member status of India and Pakistan into the SCO. So, while the SCO may be seen by both nations as a multilateral international arena to ensure security and stability in the region, colonial rule is still arguably a distinct part of their national identity and the SCO may indeed represent a crucial step away from the West and into the rising power of China in the East.


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