How India can use SCO membership to grow as an Asian power

Not only differences with Pakistan but also with China will have to be navigated.

 |  5-minute read |   14-06-2017
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The significance of India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) should neither be exaggerated nor minimised. On the positive side, it enhances India’s regional status.

The platform it provides to regularly interact with SCO members, especially the central Asian states, and that too collectively, will enable a better understanding of the regional dynamics at work within the organisation.


China and Russia have so far dominated the SCO, with China engaged in resource extraction projects such as oil and gas pipelines and promoting other forms of connectivity to create markets for China’s exports, and Russia, with its limited economic and financial capacities, focusing on security issues centred around the threat of religious extremism and terrorism.

India’s entry acknowledges its role in building the future of this region. For the central Asian states concerned about their independence, India’s membership balances somewhat the preponderance of Russia and China, besides offering them structured access to another major partner for development promotion.

India’s membership expands the geographic and geopolitical frontiers of the SCO, with the views, interests and capacities of another Asian giant influencing the organisation’s deliberations and decisions. India’s strategic interest in playing on as many geopolitical chess boards as possible, without being inhibited by renewed rivalries and changing equations amongst existing and emerging powers, is served by its SCO membership.


In recent years India has been engaged in a strategic exercise to improve its relations with the US, preserve its traditional ties with Russia and engage with China positively despite differences.

In a pragmatic approach to international relations, India has strengthened military cooperation with the US and forged with it a joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions even as it has participated in the Russia-India-China dialogue, subscribed to the BRICS agenda and become a founding member of the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Fund.

The SCO membership follows the same logic of working in all geopolitical spaces with a view to raising India’s profile and enlarging its political, economic and security options. Central Asia is well within India’s strategic perimeter. Because the region is landlocked and the traditional access to it through Afghanistan has been blocked by Pakistan, the feeling of its remoteness from us has grown.

Yet, distance-wise central Asian countries are much nearer to us than we realise. Almost all their capitals are closer to New Delhi by air than Thiruvananthapuram is. That the leaders of these Muslim countries are secular in their orientation and are opposed to religious extremism is a strategic asset for the region and important for our security.


We have shared interest to counter threats to them from Islamic radicalism radiating from the Af-Pak region, the roots of which lie in the unleashing of jihadi terrorism against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan from which the Taliban arose as instruments in the hands of Islamabad to strategically control Afghanistan through the bonds of Islam, and the safe-havens provided to the Al-Qaeda leadership on Af-Pak territory that provided the staging grounds for the Islamic movements threatening Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The strong reemergence of the Taliban aided once more by Pakistan presents a major challenge to them and us. The SCO Declaration of 2001 as well as the SCO Charter of 2002 envisage cooperation in cracking down on terrorism, separatism and extremism, concerns about which have sharpened with the appearance of Islamic State elements in Afghanistan.

On the less positive side, China, which had always bracketed India’s SCO membership with that of Pakistan, has succeeded in its objective, entrenching the hyphenation it makes between the two countries on the international stage. China’s strategy is to deny any regional advantage to India visà-vis Pakistan, which is the logic driving also its opposition to India’s NSG membership without Pakistan.


This shoring up of Pakistan for China’s parochial reasons caters to Pakistan’s paranoia of parity with India and reduces pressure on it to behave as a normal state. Even though Pakistan’s hands on religious extremism and terrorism are unclean, its SCO membership obfuscates that reality.

Regrettably, Russia, which had initially opposed Pakistan’s membership because its role as a partner in combating terrorism was questioned by it, now acknowledges positively Pakistan’s anti-terrorism credentials. How Pakistan, which continues to promote terrorism against India and Afghanistan, can cooperate within the SCO framework in combating terrorism is unclear.

Modi was right to raise the issue of radicalisation, recruitment, training and financing of terrorists at Astana and the impossibility of finding a solution without coordinated efforts. That Pakistan should have been given preference for membership over Iran and Afghanistan which have major economic, cultural and direct security ties with central Asian states reflects China’s noxious clout.

India’s membership will have other difficult aspects. We will have to decide on our participation along with Pakistan in SCO’s joint military exercises. Modi rightly mentioned at Astana our desire to deepen regional connectivity but one that respects sovereignty, regional integrity, inclusivity and sustainability, which the BRI does not.

How will we reconcile our opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative with the support it receives from all SCO members. Not only differences with Pakistan but also with China will have to be navigated by us in SCO, even as we play a constructive role.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: India can't allow Chinese to overshadow its influence in Central Asia


Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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