The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is expected to witness its first expansion since its establishment 15 years ago at the forthcoming Summit in Tashkent on June 23-24, 2016. At the last Summit in Ufa, Russia in July 2015, the group decided to admit India and Pakistan. Over the last year, hectic parleys have been underway to finalize this issue.
Until a few weeks ago, knowledgeable sources expressed doubts as to whether the process for India’s membership would be completed on time because of reported road-blocks and objections raised by China. It is no secret that China has been reluctant — if not outright hostile — to India’s membership in the SCO. China introduced several obstacles to the process; as a result, it took five years (from 2009 to 2014) for the SCO to decide on inducting new members.
However, finally on May 24, 2016, after a meeting of SCO foreign ministers in Tashkent, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan announced that the heads of SCO member-states will sign “at the upcoming summit in Tashkent a memorandum on commitments of India and Pakistan with the goal of acquisition by them a status of SCO member-states [sic].” Barring any last minute unforeseen developments, India and Pakistan should enter the SCO at its impending Summit in Tashkent.
It has been a long haul for India. India became an observer to the organization at its fifth summit in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2005. Since then, India has subtly indicated its interest in playing a more substantive role in the development of the SCO. It was felt by most members, particularly Russia and Kazakhstan, that the grouping would benefit hugely from India’s active association.
The SCO decided in 2009 to initially focus on its vertical consolidation before embarking on a horizontal expansion. The moratorium on expansion was lifted two years ago, after which India formally applied to join.
Given this 10-year journey, the upcoming summit will be a momentous occasion for India as well as the SCO.
India and the SCO
The SCO emerged from Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) which was founded in 1996 after demarcation of China’s borders with the four newly independent States that appeared after collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was transformed into today’s SCO with the induction of Uzbekistan as a new member at the Shanghai summit in 2001.
Since its establishment, the SCO has concluded several wide-ranging agreements on security, trade and investment, connectivity, energy, and culture. Their implementation, however, remains uninspiring. This is partly because the SCO lacks coherence. Having been created at China’s behest with Russian support, the SCO is still grappling to evolve as a well-knit entity. Nevertheless, the significance of the SCO cannot be underestimated because of the presence of large territorial and economic powers like Russia and China, as well as the geopolitical space that the grouping occupies.
The geographical and strategic space which the SCO straddles is of critical importance for India. India’s security, geopolitical, strategic, and economic interests are closely intertwined with developments in the region. The ever present and expanding challenges of terrorism, radicalism, and instability pose a grave threat to the sovereignty and integrity not only of India, but also of countries in its broader neighborhood.
In addition, the Central Asian region is richly endowed with natural resources and vital minerals. With the Central Asian states landlocked, and Uzbekistan even doubly landlocked, accessing these resources becomes arduous and prohibitive. Trade is dependent on passage through third countries and the political dispensation of regimes in power. Major powers, both regional and farther away, compete to secure and possibly control access to these resources; closely linked with this endeavor is the search to create credible transport routes that pass through friendly countries. India is no exception.
To get around the lack of direct land connectivity with Central Asia, and Pakistan’s refusal to provide access through its territory, India is actively collaborating to develop the Iranian seaport of Chabahar, with possible financial and technical support from Japan. An agreement to develop Chabahar and an associated rail-network at a cost of $500 million was signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan during his recent visit to Iran. India has also prioritized the construction of the International North-South Transport Corridor. Joining the SCO will be a welcome diplomatic boost to India’s efforts to connect with Central Asia.
Meanwhile, India’s membership in the SCO will add further heft and muscle to the organization, particularly against the backdrop of continuing weakness in the international economy and anemic global demand. India today is the fastest expanding global economy, with annual GDP growth of 7.5 percent. It represents the third largest economy ($8 trillion) in PPP terms and seventh largest ($2.3 trillion) in nominal dollar terms. It also inspires confidence on other indicators, such as FDI, inward remittances, savings rate, and pace of economic reforms.
SCO members also are well aware that India is an energy deficient country. Central Asia and Russia are extremely well endowed with fossil fuels, including oil, gas, and coal as well as uranium and hydropower potential. India’s rapidly expanding energy needs will provide a stable and assured market for these countries. The ground-breaking for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline in December 2015 was a long overdue step in the right direction.
Central Asia is part of India’s extended neighborhood. India’s relations with countries in the region, however, have failed to realize the enormous potential for enhancing ties in areas such as security, policy, economy, trade, investment, energy, connectivity, and capacity development. One reason is simply that India does not share common land-borders with the region, but another factor has been the infrequent visits at the highest level between India and Central Asian states.
India’s membership in the SCO will provide a welcome opportunity for India’s leadership, including prime ministers, to meet with their counterparts from Central Asia, Russia, China, Afghanistan, and others regularly and frequently. India’s potential participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will be an added advantage to make this partnership more fruitful.
India has demonstrated its keen interest in strengthening multi-faceted relations with Central Asia through Modi’s historic visit to the five Central Asian republics in July 2015. Several agreements were signed and new initiatives launched. The TAPI gas pipeline represents a shining example of a mutually beneficial project. In the future, India’s development experience, particularly in promoting agriculture, small and medium enterprises, pharmaceuticals, and information technology, can be of immense benefit to Central Asian countries.
Dealing with Terrorism and Radicalism
On the security front, the SCO remains committed to fighting the so-called “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. Here too there is much room for cooperation, as India has been a victim of terrorist attacks for the last 30 years, during which it has lost several thousand innocent children, women, and men.
The threat of terrorism to the region is particularly grave on account of continuing violence in Afghanistan, which can embolden regional groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or Hizb-ut-Tahrir to destabilize governments in Central Asia. Although China has made deep inroads into Central Asia on the economic front, Russia continues to be the prime security provider for Central Asian countries. Both India and Russia can collaborate to expand cooperation in this region.
The scourge of radicalism also looms large over the region, with the expanding influence of Islamic State (ISIS). Cadres from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other established militant groups have joined Islamic State’s ranks. Although exact figures are hard to come by, reportedly several hundred young men and women have fled their homes in Central Asia to bolster ISIS forces that are spreading their tentacles to Central Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The interest of all countries in the SCO, as well as those outside who are battling the menace of terrorism, will be well served by India’s active and direct engagement with the grouping. India has an enviable track record in handling terrorism and radicalism. Thirty years of battling terrorism has provided invaluable understanding and skills to the Indian security establishment in the fields of intelligence gathering, training, and foiling terrorist operations. India can share its experience and best practices with SCO members to mutual benefit and advantage. India can also expand its collaboration with the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for the promotion of all around safety, security, and peace.
In the near future, the SCO will need to step up to the plate and assume responsibility to provide security in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. India will get an opportunity to play its due role in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, which is currently on a disturbing trajectory on account of the expanding reach and influence of Taliban.
One security question the SCO will likely not tackle will be India’s border disputes. Some analysts, particularly Chinese scholars, argue that since the SCO and its predecessor organization were established in part to settle borders between neighboring states, the induction of India and Pakistan will enable the SCO to get involved in settling their border dispute. This appears to be mere wishful thinking. It is unlikely that the membership of India and Pakistan will provide any leverage to the SCO in resolving their bilateral dispute until Pakistan decides to abjure the use of terrorism against India as an instrument of its foreign policy. India has made it abundantly clear on innumerable occasions that there is no role for third-party mediation in the India-Pakistan conflict. Similarly, the India-China border dispute can be resolved only through bilateral discussions between the two states.
India’s membership in the SCO promises to be a win-win proposition for the organization, for Central Asia, for Russia, and for China as well as for India. A huge potential exists for SCO to play a more substantive role in promoting security, peace, economic development, connectivity, energy security, trade, and investment within the region and beyond.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, as also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.