Dmitry Fedorovich Mezentsev, Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO), visited New Delhi on a two day visit from February 23 to 25. The visit failed to attract any meaningful media attention. Nonetheless, the visit is significant and highlights the importance of the SCO in India’s larger relations with Central Asia and South Asia.
The trip comes against the backdrop of a momentous change in Afghanistan that will see an almost complete withdrawal of foreign combat troops from the country as uncertainty about the future grows in the landlocked country. The visit also comes at a time when New Delhi is more keen than before to become a full member of the six-member group. India enjoys the status of an observer state at the SCO.
“We have also indicated our willingness to play a more active, more constructive, broader and larger role in the SCO as and when the SCO decides to expand its membership,” the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Syed Akbaruddin said while announcing the arrival of Mezentsev in India.
Can India become a member of the SCO?
“India is an already observer member of SCO. It is regularly attending the SCO summits. Its members, including Central Asian countries, support India’s full membership in the organization. The expansion policy of the SCO has not yet been finalized by the major stakeholders of the grouping,” says Dr Zakir Hussain, a fellow at New Delhi based think tank Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).
Speaking with The Diplomat, Hussain underlines that “agreement between India and China is one of the important factors which can pave the way for New Delhi’s inclusion in the grouping. However,China seems to be a bit reluctant vis-a-vis India. Beijing wants to use the SCO as a bargaining card with India to get an entry to the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), while Russia may want to balance China’s growing economic footprint in the region by including India in the grouping.”
Why is membership important for New Delhi?
Hussain highlights three points in response to this question.
“First, some of the member countries of the grouping are rich in energy resources – both hydrocarbons and uranium – and they want to connect with big energy markets like India. The proposition of the SCO’s energy club is a proactive move to connect the resource rich region with resource hungry market like India. Second, the Asian-Eurasian block can play a key role not only in stabilizing Afghanistan post-2014, but also help form a joint platform against terrorism, reducing and minimizing the menace of drug trafficking, and ensuring energy security to all stakeholders. Third, an important factor is the promotion of India’s economic integration with the Central Asian republics, which is in line with India’s Connect Central Asia policy. Greater engagement of India with the SCO will undoubtedly add to the organization’s capability to enhance regional economic prosperity and security,” the scholar opines.
Can the SCO be an answer to West’s political narrative in South and Central Asia?
Opinions are divided. There are critics who argue that the inbuilt contradictions in the group are holding it back from emerging as Asia’s NATO.
A deep trust deficit between Russia and China is not allowing the regional alliance to make a forward-looking move and devise a cohesive strategy. That is the reason the SCO Development Bank is still grounded. Moscow fears that Beijing might use it as a tool to entrench its economic interests in Central Asia, thereby weakening Russian influence over the region.
It is this distrust that is coming in the way of formulating any cohesive security arrangement in the region.
Even the expansion of the six member grouping will not sort out the contradictions. Instead it might further aggravate the differences. India, Pakistan, and Iran are pitching to be included in the list. If that happens, the political differences and contradictory geopolitical visions of these nations will come in the way of realizing the real value and potential of the SCO.
Therefore, critics contend that unless internal differences are sorted out the novel experiment which started in 2001 might not live up to its potential.
However, despite the differences, the SCO’s importance cannot be understated. The region covers almost 60 percent of the total Eurasian landmass, with over 1.5 billion in population, including some of the world’s leading energy-rich nations.
It is this richness and political potential of the area that attracts India towards the SCO.