In the backdrop of the unfolding big power rivalry in the Eurasian theatre, India should take note of the geopolitical drivers which has shaped the evolution of SCO and carefully manoeuvre in the heartland for long term benefits, write Joshy M. Paul and Soundarya J for South Asia Monitor
By Joshy M. Paul and Soundarya J
India and Pakistan were inducted as full members in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on June 9. It was the first-ever expansion of the organisation since it was formed in 2001. With this comes the question of implications and benefits for India from joining the regional grouping dominated by Russia and China.
Comprising of China, Russia, and four central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO originated from Shanghai Five, a forum founded in April, 1996 for negotiating lingering border disputes between China and the central Asian countries after disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Since then, the SCO has expanded its scope to promote regional security and economic cooperation and combat what its members call the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism. Now, with two new members, the organisation is set to represent 3 billion people and account for a quarter of world’s GDP. It should be noted that the SCO is one of the few multilateral organisations with China holding a decisive leadership position.
Incorporated as an Observer in the group in 2005, along with Pakistan and Iran, India applied for membership in 2014. India and Pakistan have now become full members in the pan- Eurasian organisation after signing 38-odd documents to complete the administrative process.
However, the timing of India’s entry into the SCO could not have been more unusual. First, New Delhi last month snubbed Beijing’s invitation to attend its Belt and Road Forum (BRF), a Chinese diplomatic extravaganza to legitimize its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Then, issues such as China’s refusal to admit India into Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) despite international consensus, Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, Mazood Azhar’s issue in UN have also frustrated the India-China relationship recently. Second, India- Pakistan relations are again at an all time low in the backdrop of border skirmishes, unrest in Kashmir, the ongoing Kulbhushan Jadhav case in the Hague’s International Court of Justice, and the progress of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in disputed Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, despite India’s protests.
Islamabad’s simultaneous induction into the SCO definitely adds difficulties for New Delhi to manoeuvre in this group. Third, Russia cozying up to China in recent times and the unclear US policy towards Asia under President Trump has made India’s entry into the SCO add more complexity to the already uncertain dynamics in relationships between major players in the region.
It may therefore not turn out to be as beneficial as India expected it to be when it applied for membership three years ago. The SCO has not evolved into a fully functional regional organisation. It is only recently, in the interest of Russia and China, that the organisation has got significance in the region, given the need to control US influence in the central Asian region, and to keep a check on these countries rich in resources for economic and security reasons. Beyond this, the SCO has achieved nothing significant except the establishment of a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent and the Peace Mission, the group’s largest military exercise held every year.
In addition to this, the SCO completely supports China’s BRI since it was announced in 2013. This adds to India’s serious concerns, given its reservations about the project, especially on the CPEC, which violates India’s territorial sovereignty.
The BRI envisions connecting Asia, Europe and Africa and has more than 60 countries on board, including the inner Asian countries. The BRF in May saw participation from heads of all SCO member states except Tajikistan. The SCO summit declarations of 2014, 2015 and 2016 have all lauded the “One Belt One Road” initiative. An attempt has already been made by the Chinese government and media to already link the Astana summit to the BRI, with the Chinese Foreign Minister saying Xi Jinping’s trip to Astana has added “impetus to the building of the Belt and Road.” The press release on the organisation’s website after the Astana Summit stated that leaders of SCO member countries have welcomed the BRI. It is clear that India’s say in the final document was limited. All SCO members, except India, are part of the BRI.
In such a situation, it remains to be seen how well India expresses its territorial and sovereignty concerns to fellow SCO members and also how the organisation will respond to India’s concerns about the BRI. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address at the Astana summit, emphasized the importance of upholding the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity in formulating connectivity projects.
What should India do?
New Delhi has been unsuccessful in fully realizing potential relationship with the Central Asian countries for geopolitical reasons. With the instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan blocking access to the region, SCO membership is a gateway for India to the Central Asian republics, whatever Delhi’s reservation on BRI may be. India’s interest in the region can be seen in terms of energy security and resources and it should fully utilize the opportunities provided by the SCO to overcome the problems of the tyranny of geography and realize the potential of India’s relations with the Central Asian countries.
India needs to find areas where SCO members can fulfill India’s national interest and collaborate with them in those spheres. Prime Minister Modi reaffirming India’s keenness to enhance connectivity with the region in his speech is a welcome move in this direction, which must be followed by concrete policy actions.
The SCO also opens another platform for New Delhi to engage with Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad in a regional setting which it could use to reduce hostilities in the relations and improve it. China and Russia are not completely unaware of the importance of India in terms of its market as well as its balancing role in the great power game they are playing. The SCO will provide India a platform to reach out to China and Russia to work on common interest areas in the Central Asian region.
Subtle yet key differences between Russia and China on their priorities in the region and how they want to use SCO have already started to play out. India should not shy away from taking advantage of the opportunities provided by this power play. In the backdrop of the unfolding big-power rivalry in the Eurasian theatre, India should take note of the geopolitical drivers which has shaped the evolution of SCO and carefully manoeuvre in the heartland for long term benefits.
SCO membership will help India reach out to Eurasian states in a better way. India’s voice will reach the highest level on regional security issues, including terrorism and other cross-border criminal activities. Importantly, it will not discuss bilateral matters that could be raised by Pakistan as is in the case of SAARC. In a way, it will facilitate more cooperation between India, Pakistan and China.
(Joshy M. Paul is Assistant Professor in International Studies and Soundarya J is a post graduate student, Christ University Bangalore. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to email@example.com)