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POLITICS: India Takes Security Concerns to Shanghai Summit

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jun 17 2009 (IPS) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit at Yekaterinburg Tuesday appears to have been motivated chiefly by the security environment in the region shaping up around Washington’s ‘AfPak’ policy.

While India has since 2005 been an observer at the SCO – which groups China, Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian republics for mutual security – this is the first time that a summit of the organisation is being attended by its prime minister. Like India, Pakistan also enjoys observer status at the SCO.

Singh was blunt when he met Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari at Yekaterinburg on Tuesday. “I have come with the limited mandate of discussing how Pakistan can deliver on assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India,” he said in the full glare of television cameras.

An apparently embarrassed Zardari reacted by saying, “Please let them [television cameramen] go.” The two then proceeded to the first face-to-face top level meeting between leaders of the two countries since the November attacks on the port city of Mumbai by a squad of ten heavily armed terrorists that left 166 people dead and hundreds of others injured.

New Delhi’s interest in the SCO has been building up since the group’s seriousness about tackling terrorism became apparent at a meeting in June of its security chiefs in Moscow, where they recommended that the Yekaterinburg summit be used to push Pakistan to put an end to terrorist training camps said to be operating from its territory.

“It is imperative that we genuinely cooperate with one another and on a global scale to resolutely defeat international terrorism,” Singh told delegates to the SCO.

Madvan Palat, a noted international affairs expert who specialises on the Soviet Union said India realizes that the SCO summit also offered India additional options in dealing with terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan – rather than depending on the United States.

“While India is keen to avoid going back to any cold war style security arrangement or to confront the U.S., it still needs to position itself to play a more effective role in the AfPak situation,” Palat, currently a distinguished fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), a prestigious think tank, told IPS.

Credit for finding a way to get an Indian prime minister to attend the SCO summit should go to host Russia which decided to hold the meeting alongside the first formal Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) summit at Yekaterinburg. India, which previously had shied away from entering a security arrangement that did not involve the U.S., seemed only too happy to oblige an old and trusted ally.

Palat pointed out that, despite the end of the cold war and a steady improvement in relations with the U.S., India continues to depend heavily on Russia for critical military hardware such as advanced Sukhoi fighters – while also ensuring that these do not fall into the hands of its regional rivals like Pakistan and China. India is now in the process of buying an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine from Russia.

During the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush relations between India and the U.S. bloomed to a point where the two countries could sign a landmark, civilian nuclear cooperation deal, but things have been less congenial since.

The U.S. under Obama is keen that India resumes dialogue with Pakistan – suspended since the November attacks. Washington’s reasoning is that lowered tensions between the two South Asian countries would enable Pakistan to move troops away from its eastern border with India and concentrate on fighting the Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan.

India has blamed the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group for the attacks on Mumbai, and made dismantling of the group a condition for resuming a five-year-old composite dialogue process. But, a Pakistani court order released, earlier this month, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, founder of the banned LeT, on the grounds that there was no evidence to link him to the Mumbai attacks.

Saeed was put under house arrest on Dec. 11 after the United Nations Security Council banned the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which he now leads, declaring it a front for the LeT.

To India’s disappointment the U.S. took the stand that the arrest and release of Saeed was Pakistan’s internal matter. On Jun 3, while addressing a press conference in Islamabad, U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke refused to comment on Saeed’s release saying: “It is Pakistan’s internal issue. That’s all I can say.”

While concern has been expressed both in India and in the U.S. that funds provided to Pakistan to combat terrorism along the Afghan border have been diverted to the eastern front, New Delhi complains that little is being done to check this on the ground.

Perhaps sensing the more accommodative mood of the Obama administration, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani recently declared that the “Kashmir dispute holds the key to durable peace in the region.”

In an article on the editorial page of the Times of India newspaper Wednesday, Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary suggests that resumption of dialogue with Pakistan is pointless when its “establishment continues to deflect pressure [to investigate the Mumbai massacre] with its devious tactics of partial action, double-dealing and exploitation of international anxieties about its internal situation, not to mention leveraging to its advantage U.S. compulsions in Afghanistan.”

Last week, on a trip to India, William J. Burns, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, ruffled feathers by suggesting that the wishes of the Kashmiri people should be taken into account in any settlement between India and Pakistan over their long-standing dispute over the territory. India considers Kashmir a bilateral issue with Pakistan.

Burns, who was here in preparation for a visit to India by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July, said Clinton intended to launch a “new phase in the partnership” that would include defence and counter-terrorism.

Clinton is expected to outline the Obama administration’s policy towards India when she delivers the keynote speech at the U.S.-India Business Council’s 34th anniversary summit on Wednesday – the first after India’s general elections were completed in May and Singh’s new government was sworn in.

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