For the first time India is participating in the 8-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Ministers' Meeting that included Pakistan and seven Central Asian countries. Speaking at the 15th SCO meeting at Beijing on April 24, 2018, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman highlighted India’s keen interest in developing an expanded partnership with the broader Eurasian region. In doing so, India has sought to build on her long-standing ties of deep mutual trust and confidence with Russia, vibrant historical and cultural linkages with countries of Central Asia and closer development partnership with China and to further enhance and deepen ties with all the member countries for mutual benefit.
Sitharaman said India will work with the SCO partners to energize and revitalize the age-old ties of affinity with the countries of the region. She sought a forward-looking partnership based on robust dialogue and concrete initiatives to enhance the economic, trade and cultural cooperation as well as mutually beneficial interactions on defence and security matters.
She conveyed that greater communication among member countries within the region as well as in the broader international context is essential for progressive trends towards stability and peace to reassert itself and to arrest the current drift in ties between major powers and to address any possible implications for the region.
She emphasised that many problems that confront the region, such as climate change, cyber security, narcotics trafficking or violent transnational crime require solutions based on cooperative frameworks that involve all countries and stakeholders and that this is particularly necessary to address the persistent threat of cross-border terrorism and extremism.
Sitharaman pointed out that international terrorism is today the most serious threat to peaceful societies. Terrorism threatens to derail our developmental aspirations and create sustained instability both within our countries and across national borders and that the member countries should closely coordinate and adopt a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism. Contending that arguments of political convenience to provide an alibi for terrorist groups or organisations that support terrorism through material support or otherwise are no longer tolerable as the world has now realized, there are no good terrorists, she avowed that India will continue to engage strongly against terrorism with the SCO-Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure based in Tashkent.
Strongly condemning yet another heinous terrorist attack in Kabul, recently, she said SCO must adopt an uncompromising approach towards the persisting threat of terrorism in Afghanistan, as it is essential to advance peace and prosperity in the region and that India is committed to doing all it can to assist Afghanistan in its quest to regain stability and reconstruct its economy and polity. She elaborated that this includes cooperation in building capacities and capabilities of the Afghan national security forces and that in doing so, India will continue to be guided by the requirements of the government of Afghanistan and the shared objectives of the international community.
Since defence cooperation, especially enhanced linkages between armed forces is an important dimension of SCO, Sitharaman said India is keen to explore the full potentialities of this engagement and will engage with a positive approach and an open mind on all issues related to defence cooperation within the SCO framework.
Referring to the decision to set up an Experts Working Group (EWG) mechanism under the SCO Defence Ministers Meeting to support greater cooperation in the defence field, she opined that there is a need for further discussions on how the EWG mechanism can be best developed to meet our shared requirements and objectives for defence cooperation in the SCO framework and stated, “India has already commenced practical steps to take forward defence engagement under the framework, as reflected in our first ever presence at this ministerial meeting and participation of the Indian Army band at the Fanfare for Peace military tattoo being held in conjunction with our meeting today”. Further, she stated that “we will also engage as feasible on the items under the agreed programme of activities for defence cooperation under the SCO for 2017-19. As we move ahead, India will also explore the possibility of coordinating some SCO defence activities in the coming years”.
She assured that India will participate in the SCO’s Peace Mission joint military exercises being held in Russia later this year. “As India enjoys excellent bilateral defence cooperation with a large number of SCO countries especially with Russia as well as with all of India’s Central Asian partners represented in the SCO, she expressed belief that cooperation in the SCO framework will help reinforce India’s efforts to strengthen bilateral cooperation with the partners in the region in the field of defence.”
Recognizing the value of improving regional transportation and communication networks through mutual consultation, sustainability and sharing of benefits, Sitharaman said that it can create a network of physical and digital connectivity that extends from Russia’s northern regions to the shores of Indian Ocean. Stating that the International North South Transportation Corridor is an important step in that direction, she reminded that it would also be essential that such initiatives respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.
While the Indian minister has assertively put across her brief covering all important issues, given Pakistan’s compulsions and China’s recent statements and actions on the Line of Actual Control, it remains to be seen if there will be any positive developments on the ground or on the negotiation tables.
(The author, an Indian Army veteran and strategic analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com )