By Sadia Kazmi*
It is for the first time ever that the militaries of two South Asian nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan participated in the six-day joint military exercises together under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Russia. Popularly known as “SCO Peace Mission 2018”, this exercise takes place every two years. This year the Central Military Commission of Russia conducted this exercise from 22-29 August at Chebarkul town in Chelyabinsk Oblast in Russia, initiated by the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (RATS SCO). Under the SCO charter, the exercises included tactical level operations employing counter-terrorism measures and devising effective counter-insurgency techniques to deal with the threats at the international level.
Around 3,000 soldiers from India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan took part in the exercise. The Pakistan contingent comprised 110 members, while the strength of the Chinese contingent was 748 personnel. 167 Army personnel were from India, while ten representatives took part from Uzbekistan as observers. The drill followed the 18th SCO summit.
The main objective behind this mega drill was to expand and enhance cooperation along with building better understanding about each others’ concerns among the member countries. Primarily the orientation has been towards dealing with the growing menace of extremism and terrorism.
While the SCO was founded in 2001 at a Shanghai Summit with the six initial member states as Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the latest two members added to this forum are India and Pakistan. The membership now has eight states. Not only is this being seen as a positive development but quite a feat considering the fact that the two new members share a long and most turbulent historical relations. In addition to this another important aspect is that with the inclusion of India and Pakistan, now the SCO outreach has expanded to the South Asian region as well.
This particularly further makes the SCO’s role and the anti-terror drill more relevant as the South Asian region has also been replete with a long history of terrorism and extremism. India and Pakistan have been hostile to each other for many years. In the past decade, crossfire incidents occurred almost every week along Kashmir’s Line of Control. Therefore, as India and Pakistan’s first joint military exercise after their independence, this exercise will be of certain significance to the alleviation tension along the India-Pakistan border. It is very much due to the frictional relations that numerous exchange mechanisms between the two countries have been interrupted many times.
The SCO military exercise can promote positive interactions between the two militaries and help to ease relations between the two countries.
By joining hands in this joint exercise, the states show the commitment and willingness towards rooting out this menace together. This presents a new high security high in the bilateral relations and indeed serves as Confidence Building Measure or CBM between the two South Asian nuclear rivals.
The last exercise was held in 2016 but without India and Pakistan since they were not the members of SCO back then, even though their militaries have worked side-by-side during several UN peacekeeping missions.
There are high hopes attached now that the Peace Mission 2018 and the future series will greatly improve the political and military trust between the disgruntled rivals of South Asia while providing them with a rare opportunity for military exchange. Ultimately this surely have regional implications by positively enhancing the possibility of peace and stability. Nonetheless, in order to maintain the constructive engagement going between India and Pakistan, the member states need to keep this momentum and simultaneously devise new tactics to be included in these drills with the ultimate aim to target terrorist groups in Central and specifically South Asia. A possibility should be worked out to include Afghanistan as well, which at the moment is the observer state. This will surely further enhance the impact and relevance of the SCO as a major platform for all these states to come together and make their contributions for the larger cause of regional peace and stability.
*Sadia Kazmi is a Senior Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. She can be reached at sadia.kazmi.svi[at]gmail.com