Why SCO is important for India

As the second largest and rising Asian power, SCO is important for New Delhi in many ways.

 |  5-minute read |   12-06-2018
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India’s participation in the Qingdao summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on June 9 and 10 as a full member calls for an appraisal of the importance of the organisation and its relevance to India’s interests.

The SCO is not a pan-Asian organisation and, to that extent, its political, economic and security dimension is partial in the larger Asian context. Economically dynamic Asia, eastwards of Bangladesh, does not contribute to its agenda and a dialogue on building a regional security architecture in Asia in which ASEAN is playing a central role are outside its scope.

Central Asia

That China, Russia and now India are SCO members and together their political, economic, military, demographic and cultural muscle is huge, does not necessarily give uniqueness to the organisation. Russia, India and China are already together in a three-country format (RIC) since 2002 and in the BRICS forum since 2006.

If the RIC and BRICS forums have not been able to shape international governance to the extent desired, it is unclear how the addition of four Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — in the SCO format will give them this capacity.

The Central Asian member states are land-locked, demographically small and relatively undeveloped economically (though some are rich in hydrocarbon resources which are of special interest to China). While geographically the SCO forms a cohesive block inside continental Asia, Turkmenistan’s absence as a full member is a fault line, not to mention the serious divisions amongst these states. Apart from China’s energy hunger, these states are important for China’s connectivity projects with Europe.

Russia has accepted the reality of China’s economic power and its growing political clout. It is not only reconciled to China’s expanded role in states that were once part of the Soviet Union, it seeks to benefit from China’s investment in infrastructure in Russia itself and has proposed cooperative linkages between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasian Economic Union.

US/EU sanctions on Russia have, besides, given Moscow little choice but to deepen ties with China, which is reflected also in the Russia-China joint management of the SCO. The absence of Western powers does not also give any special character to the SCO, given that the BRICS forum too excludes them.

The SCO is important for India in several ways. As the second largest and rising Asian power, India has a natural interest in any grouping in its neigbourhood. In SCO’s case, we have a mutual interest in a stronger partnership with Central Asian states, be it in the economic domain, especially energy transportation, unfeasible at present because of the Pakistan factor. We have a political interest in preventing Pakistan from excluding us from the region and of partially balancing China’s preponderant role there.

Our concerns about the spread of terrorism and religious extremism in this area, largely from Pakistani territory, and its fall-out for our own security are real. We also need Russian understanding for any active Indian role in the region. The declaration issued at the end of the Qingdao summit exposes the limits of the organisation and India’s expectations from it. The declaration is full of high-sounding principles, which is of course normal in such multilateral texts where consensus on platitudes is easy to reach.


Shanghai spirit

The claim that in accordance with the Shanghai spirit, “the SCO acts as one of the most influential participants in the modern system of international relations”, setting “an example of close and fruitful cooperation in building a more equitable and balanced world order based on an equal, cooperative, indivisible, comprehensive and sustainable security, ensuring the interests of each and every state in accordance with the norms and principles of international law” seems overblown.

The declaration speaks of “mutual respect of territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders, non-aggression, a peaceful settlement of disputes, the non-use of force or threat of force, and other universally recognised norms of international law aimed at the maintenance of peace and security”, principles that China does not observe in its relations with India or in the South China Sea.

That “the member states reaffirm their resolve to including to turn mutual borders into borders of lasting peace and friendship”, sounds ironical in the context of Pakistan’s long-standing approach to its differences with India.

Pakistan angle

India has not subscribed to the declaration’s paragraph on non-proliferation. The elaborate paragraphs on countering terrorism are rightly worded (“The member states intend to continue exchanging information on individuals involved in terrorist activities and… prevent the activity and cross-border movement of foreign terrorists and terrorist groups”), but this will not deter Pakistan from continuing to sponsor terrorism against India, given that it ignores such commitments also in the SAARC context.

The paragraph on Afghanistan excludes any reference to the Taliban, probably at India’s instance. Most importantly, India has not endorsed China’s BRI, which other member states have, despite China’s sensitivities and the developing Modi-Xi equation with an agreement to hold another informal summit between the two in India in 2019.

Modi’s plenary statement had pre-figured this as he focused on India’s commitment to enhance regional connectivity but laid out our definition of it which challenges the modalities of the BRI. Contrary to expectations he did not target Pakistan on terrorism as frontally as he could in that setting but did so indirectly by raising the issue in relation to Afghanistan.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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