The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Council of Heads of Government meeting in Tashkent in the last week of November 2013 saw a growing enthusiasm from India for a more proactive role in Central Asia. The comments made by Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh at the conference is a clear indication that New Delhi has already committed to initiating steps to apply for a full membership of SCO.
Two issues Singh highlighted at the meeting also attracted considerable attention. She said that the SCO should “step up its engagement in the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan, through common projects and financial commitments. India would then support the efforts by Russia to craft common SCO positions on Afghanistan.” Noting that terrorism is the major threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan, Singh pointed out that a long term solution could be “achieved by supporting the efforts made by Afghanistan itself to begin an Afghan-led dialogue on reconciliation with the armed opposition forces, provided that these groups respect the principles adopted by the international community.”
Moreover, while recognizing “the inalienable right of all states to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in accordance with universally agreed international norms, conventions and obligations,” Singh said that New Delhi has been “encouraged by the recent tidings about the multilateral dialogue in Geneva to explore a comprehensive settlement of the Iranian nuclear question, through political and diplomatic means. The positive resolution of this issue can lead to multiple and far-reaching benefits across the region, including in the SCO space.” India’s references to the two issues (Iran and Afghanistan) must be seen in the larger context of expanding New Delhi’s “Connect Central Asia” policy, which it has been seeking to institutionalize for some time. This is again a part of India’s wider dream of “New Asianism.”
SCO in the New Asianism framework
The Asia-Pacific has seen profound changes in its regional power architecture over the last two decades. During this period, a wide range of community-building initiatives and projects have been underway, and they have transformed the dynamics of regional institution-building and major power relations in the region. The evolution of Asian regionalism itself can be assessed using a wide range of measures. The Asian Development Bank calls this “an economic dynamo.” It says that Asia’s approach to regionalism is “pragmatic and flexible” set in the principle of “variable geometry,” which suggests a motivation to adapt the structure of cooperation to the priorities of different groups of members. Asian regionalism is thus “multi track and multispeed.”
The SCO, renamed from the Shanghai Five in June 2001 in Shanghai when Uzbekistan was added to the founders China, Russia Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (with India, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan and Afghanistan later accorded the status as official observers and Belarus and Sri Lanka as dialogue partners), has become a vibrant trans-regional organization. SCO member states occupy a territory of more than 30 million square kilometers, or three fifths of the Eurasian continent, and have a population of 1.5 billion, a quarter of the planet’s population. Beyond the SCO’s original structure and mission, the organization’s agenda has broadened to encompass a range of substantive topics, with representatives from all member states and sometimes observers and guests that meet regularly. Many experts highlight the SCO’s security focus, but the bloc devotes great attention to economic issues, including promoting its Business Council and an Interbank Association, as well as a SCO Forum of academic advisors, and joint councils on topics such as agriculture, education, health, culture judiciaries,
For some time, Russia has seemed to be uneasy over Beijing’s expanding influence in what it regarded as its traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, yet the two countries share a common concern over U.S. moves internationally. Moscow regards the U.S.-led efforts to oust Syrian President Bashir al-Assad as a major threat to Russian interests in the Middle East that would pave the way for regime-change in Iran. China has backed Russia in opposing Western interventions in Syria and Iran, the latter a major Chinese oil supplier. Washington also has reservations about the expanding Eurasian integration under Russian and Chinese auspices. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned that the U.S. was determined to offset Moscow’s attempt to “re-Sovietize” the Central Asian republics. It may be noted that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed an agreement during this time based on a proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to form a Eurasian Union with a Eurasian Economic Commission, along similar lines to the European Union, by 2015. Some analysts are predicting that the body could expand to include not only former Soviet republics, but ex-Eastern bloc countries like Hungary and Bulgaria, as well as China and Mongolia.
India’s Growing Interest in Central Asia
India’s quest to become a full-fledged member of the SCO is a reflection of its desire to diversify its trans-regional ties in the emerging regional order in Eurasia. Among the factors encouraging this, geopolitical proximity may force India (and China for that matter) to expand its strategic relations to secure energy supplies. No matter what it implies for their neighbors’ navigation rights, India and China may develop common strategic interests in ensuring stability in the South China Sea, although New Delhi has not had much to say about Beijing’s claims of sovereignty in this region.
There is also obviously a meeting ground between some of India’s interests and the priorities of the SCO. Since its beginning in 2001, the SCO has focused on fighting terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, areas of clear interest for India. The projected SCO Free Trade Area, to be in place by 2020 to economically integrate all members of the SCO, is also appealing to New Delhi. Observers say that it could be more attractive than the West’s offer to admit India to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and worry that India’s full-fledged accession to the SCO might be a setback for the U.S.
However, India’s interest in expanding its trans-regional ties with SCO has a historical-cultural context too. Indian traders and travelers also used the Silk Road, and Buddhism spread across the vast Eurasian plains from India. Interactions between India and Central Asia manifested through the movement of peoples, goods and ideas, including spiritual interfaces.
In recent decades, India has been seeking to add economic ties to these political and cultural links. At present, India’s trade with Central Asia is a relatively paltry $500 million. New Delhi knows that it must overcome obstacles like limited land connectivity and the comparatively modest size of Central Asian markets. This will call for intensified diplomatic efforts through the framework of its “Connect Central Asia” (CCA) policy. The CCA is a multi-level approach entailing political, security, economic and cultural connections. India outlined the CCA at the India-Central Asia dialogue held in June 2012. While addressing the SCO Summit held in June 2012, India’s External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna said that India always valued “the fact that most SCO member countries are our neighbors, or belong to our extended neighborhood, with a strong historical and cultural legacy of centuries binding us together.”
At the SCO Summit in Beijing, in 2012, India said that it would be happy “to play a larger, wider and more constructive role in the SCO as a full member, as and when the organization finalizes the expansion modalities.” India also welcomed the general trajectory of the SCO towards expansion and redefinition of its role “to deal more effectively with the common challenges of security and development in our region.” At last month’s SCO meeting, then, India’s foreign secretary was simply echoing New Delhi’s long-cherished desire to be a major player in the Eurasian region.
New Delhi sees connectivity with countries under the SCO as crucial to augment India’s trans-regional ties. It is clearly ready to work with regional entities to bridge Central and South Asia. In areas ranging from information technology and entrepreneurship to energy and disaster management, India and the SCO look set to accelerate the pace of cooperation in the years to come.
K.M. Seethi is Director, School of International Relations and Politics & Honorary Director, K.N. Raj Centre, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, India. He is also the Editor of the South Asian Journal of Diplomacy and General Editor of the Indian Journal of Politics and International Relation. He can be contacted at [email protected].