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EDITORIAL: For better or worse, this year’s climate catastrophe pushed Islamabad to the centre stage at the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, recently; which is sure to impact the country’s diplomatic standing.

It did the same at the UN shortly after it, of course, but the spotlight at the SCO will be seen differently by different countries and blocs for reasons of their own.

The fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine, US tensions with China over Taiwan, the “full commitment” to the nuclear programme with Iran, and also Nato member Turkey’s surprising bid for SCO membership – already triggering a feverish debate about whether Erdogan will be Nato’s bridge with this outfit or Nato’s man in SCO – have significantly changed the region’s geopolitical calculus and raised the stakes in a rapidly changing international order.

For a bloc, which traditional international power brokers view with increasing suspicion, to argue in Pakistan’s favour will not go completely unnoticed in western capitals; even though almost all countries lined up to make the same case just a few days later at the UN.

Yet, the immediate needs of the flood-response notwithstanding, finding a stronger voice at the SCO is a logical and practical step for Pakistan.

The Russians only recently scored a major diplomatic, and economic, victory when the Saudi government brushed aside Washington’s plea and backed the decision of OPEC+, the cartel’s alliance with big producers like Russia, to cut oil supply and raise prices in the international market.

Moscow and Beijing, along with Tehran, have also made something of a habit of trading out of the dollar, which means they increasingly conduct transactions, including oil trade, in their own currencies; taking the first big steps in undermining the status of the American dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

The markets have long memories, and they remember very well what happened to the likes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qadhafi when they tried to take the same road in the early years of the new century. That is why the more this commercial novelty spreads, the more red flags it will raise for America and its allies.

That said, though, there’s no apparent reason to target a country like Pakistan for taking its case to whoever will listen and lend it money to deal with a once-in-a-generation, existential crisis.

Yet with SCO now looking to expand its usual business to synchronised military drills and war games, and also thinking about similar foreign and economic policies down the road, Pakistan does finally seem set to integrate more closely with organisations and alliances closer to home rather than deep in the Gulf and across the Atlantic.

All things considered, Pakistan is already behind the curve in terms of defining its place in the Asia-Pacific region as it adjusts to the realities of the 21st century. Russia, China, India and Iran have long been working on creating an arc of influence in the area, but Pakistan has never been able to fully commit because of its problems with India, and because the compulsions of its ties with the US and Saudi Arabia have demanded a certain distance with Russia and Iran. But as countries with SCO have shown over the years, it is still possible to chart the waters in a way that preserves old friendships and builds new alliances.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s crucial meetings with other heads of governments and states on the sidelines of the summit were, therefore, of great significance; which also explains why the foreign office’s explainer was more detailed than usual.

There are already signs of strengthening CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) and also importing much-needed oil and gas from Russia; both encouraging since the former slowed down more than a little during the previous PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) administration and the latter was made controversial in its last days.

The terrible floods have left Islamabad scrambling for help, but they’ve also enabled a more spirited outreach than before; one that could well redefine Pakistan’s place in the region and beyond. But only if the leadership is aware of and responsive to the requirements and challenges of a fast-changing present and very different future.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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