India and Pakistan will be joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as full Members at its 17th Summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on 8 and 9 June.
By Ashok Sujjanhar
India and Pakistan will be joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as full Members at its 17th Summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on 8 and 9 June. It is appropriate and satisfying that India accedes to the SCO in Astana where 12 years ago it was admitted as an Observer. Kazakhstan along with Russia has been a staunch supporter of India’s membership of the SCO.
The journey over the last 12 years has been tortuous and full of pitfalls for India. Initially India was not convinced that it should apply to become a member of the SCO. This stand was opposite to the approach adopted by other countries who became Observers along with India in 2005 viz. Pakistan and Iran. Both these countries were extremely keen to join the grouping as quickly as possible and put in their papers for membership in 2006 (Pakistan) and 2008 (Iran). India bid its time and did not wish to appear to be in a tearing hurry to join the organisation. It ultimately put in its formal application in September 2014, after all rules for admitting new members had been finalised by the group earlier that year. Iran’s membership has so far not received the go-ahead because of the UN sanctions against it. It is likely that with sanctions having been lifted last year, Iran will also join the grouping in the near future.
India’s leaders never attended any SCO Summit in the capacity of an Observer while Pakistani and Iranian Presidents, including Musharraf, Zardari, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani, attended several summits in different capitals to press home their position for full membership of the organisation. The only summit attended by former Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh while India was still an Observer was in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2009 when the host, Russia, in deference to India’s position to not attend a summit where it had no substantive role to play, organised the BRICS and SCO summits together. This enabled the Indian leadership to attend both the summits. The same savoir faire was employed by Russia in July 2015 when both the BRICS and SCO summits were held back-to-back in Ufa and were attended by Prime Minister Modi.
The ball for the first expansion of the SCO since its establishment in 2001 was set rolling in Ufa with acceptance of applications by both India and Pakistan to join its fold. The process was taken forward at the summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 23-24 June 2016 with signature of ‘Memorandum of Obligations’ by the two countries. Over the last year, India has signed around three dozen documents and the stage is now set for it to take up its rightful position as a full member of the organisation at the forthcoming summit in Astana.
Since its establishment, the SCO has concluded several wide-ranging agreements on security, trade and investment, connectivity, energy, SCO Bank, culture, etc. Their implementation, however, has remained uninspiring. This is partly because the SCO lacks coherence. Having been created at China’s behest with Russian support, the SCO is still grappling to evolve as a well-knit entity. Nevertheless, significance of the SCO cannot be underestimated because it straddles large territorial, geopolitical, strategic and economic space and strength.
The entry of India and Pakistan will make the SCO the world’s largest regional cooperative organisation representing the biggest section of global population.
Significant promise and potential exists for India, once it becomes a member of SCO, to expand its outreach to the Central Asian region which comprises a part of its extended neighbourhood.
Stability and security of Central Asia is closely connected with India’s own security. Membership of the organisation will enable India to keep abreast of and actively participate in any initiatives that emerge to effectively deal with threats and dangers from terrorism, radicalisation and extremism in the region. Central Asia has emerged as one of the most dangerous areas from where large numbers of young man and women continue to go to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda. Many of the most visible recent terror attacks bear the footprints of perpetrators from Central Asia, particularly from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
It is also recognised that regional countries need to play a much more proactive role in bringing peace, stability and security to Afghanistan after the departure of a majority of the US and NATO forces in 2014. Russia, China and Pakistan had recently launched/re-activated a process of consultations amongst themselves to bring peace to Afghanistan. After strident and vociferous objections and protests by Afghanistan and India, these two countries and Iran were included in the six-nation meeting in Moscow on 15 February 2017. The third meeting on 14 April 2017 was expanded to include all five representatives from Central Asia as well as the US. The US did not attend as it said that it was not informed of the objectives of the meeting. It is imperative for India to be proactively articulate its point of view at every fora in which the future of Afghanistan is discussed. It is likely that the SCO will start playing a more prominent role in dealing with stability and security in Afghanistan. The membership of the SCO will help India to stay up to speed on all these developments.
In addition to annual summits at heads of state/government level of the SCO member-states, a large number of meetings at ministerial and senior official levels also take place to expand cooperation and collaboration amongst members in diverse areas. The annual summits will provide a valuable opportunity to Indian leaders to meet and interact with leaders of Central Asian countries on a regular, frequent basis. India has not been able to expand its cooperation and engagement with Central Asia because of the absence of shared common borders as also because contacts between the top leadership of India and Central Asia has been rather inadequate and perfunctory. Frequent meetings and exchanges as also concrete progress on Chabahar port project, International North-South Transport Corridor and membership of Free Trade Agreement with Eurasian Economic Union will go a long way in expanding all round cooperation and partnership between India and Central Asia.
Meetings at ministerial and senior official level, including between national security advisors, businessmen, industrialists, experts etc., will open up new vistas of cooperation.
Some pitfalls could, however, emerge for India. This is a China dominated organisation. Nexus between China and Pakistan is well established and growing stronger. It appears that Russia is also increasingly becoming a part of this concatenation. The other countries in the grouping are also well disposed towards Pakistan. China and Russia are of course the big boys who call the shots. So, there is a risk of India being isolated. India will hence need to be suave and nimble-footed and maintain strong bonds of communication and cooperation with as large a membership of the organisation as possible. While firmly advancing its positions, India should not enter into a conflictual or confrontational situation with China, Russia or any of the other existing members of the organisation.
It is highly likely that sooner, the SCO will provide unqualified support and endorsement to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India has serious reservations about this project which were cogently and emphatically articulated when it boycotted the Belt and Road Forum Meeting in Beijing in mid-May 2017. In discussions on the BRI, India will have to adopt a sophisticated and nuanced approach so that it safeguards its position without endorsing the Belt and Road Project.
Another potential hazard of India’s membership of the SCO could be the pressure/encouragement by China and Russia for talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and to promote peace between the two countries. India will need to deal with this issue in a firm yet deft manner while reiterating and maintaining its position that this is a bilateral issue and India does not countenance a third party involvement or intervention. This should not pose much of a difficulty as the SCO’s mandate does not extend to solving bilateral disputes between member-states. Over the last 17 years of its existence, SCO has refrained from dealing with disputes between its members. For instance, conflicts and disagreements on water, boundaries and territory between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not been on the agenda of the SCO. It is to be hoped that same principles will continue to be upheld and that the focus of deliberations at the summits and interactions at other levels would be to promote peace, security, counterterrorism cooperation and enhance partnership in economic, business, innovation, trade, project development, human capacity development, physical, social, digital and human connectivity to provide a better standard of living for all citizens of the SCO member-countries and the world.
Observer Research Foundation, June 7, 2017