India is all set to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a China-dominated security grouping. Does it actually hold any direct potential gains for India?
At the Tashkent Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on June 23–24, this issue of accepting India as a full member will once proves elusive. The extended session of the Summit on June 24 will only initiate the process of India’s accession to the SCO with an endorsement on the base document called the “Memorandum of Obligations”.
The grouping expects India to sign over 30 other mandatory conventions and draft documents. No details are available in public what do those additional documents actually contain. But obviously they probably constitute commitments/obligations already undertaken so far by member states (Russia, China and four Central Asian states) under the SCO framework. It seems those terms of reference cannot be renegotiated – which means India will have to study carefully what those obligations means, for the implications they may entail for its interests.
The caveat here could possibly be about the clause ‘good neighbourhood’ behaviour that India and Pakistan must agree to undertake before they expect full membership into SCO. In other words, the onus is on India and Pakistan to adhere to the SCO’s expectations – the organisation appears to be demanding the equivalent of a ‘peace treaty’ between the neighbouring countries that would eventually culminate in India (and Pakistan) acceding to the SCO.
According to Rashid Alimov, SCO’s Secretary General, the process could take anywhere between six months to a year. This means that at Tashkent it is going to be a step closer to membership. For the time being, India still remains as an “Acceding Member” with the status of “Observers.” This is in contrast to expectations in New Delhi entry into the SCO was a done deal. The Russian officials on June 22 revealed that the Summit will discuss “possible accession” of India (and Pakistan) during 2017 when SCO is also planning to admit Iran as a full member.
There appears to be an unexplained hitch to India getting full membership this year. Clearly, it makes India’s path to membership into the body thornier and lengthier. The delay seems linked to shifting global geopolitics of growing big power rivalries from Eurasia to the ‘Indo-Pacific’, the China-led Eurasian grouping – which is intended both as a counterweight to the US-led global order and a key link in Beijing’s new plans for connectivity– appears unsure of India’s full commitment to the SCO’s raison d’etre and charter.
The SCO cited a number of reasons to delay expansion, including Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, suggesting during the Ufa summit last year that the inclusion of India and Pakistan into the grouping would change the very character of the SCO. In the most recent interview to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, President Vladimir Putin diplomatically put “The international environment is complicated and multifaceted, and issues are not resolved by the mere fact that countries with different approaches to and views on various international issues join the SCO creates conditions for those issues to be resolved.”
India’s SCO membership prospects are closely linked to ongoing global rebalancing games and are not unrelated to the deepening of Indo-US military ties, New Delhi’s position on the South China Sea and the country’s bid to join the coveted NSG club.
The SCO is mainly welded on Sino–Russian entente. India’s desire to join the Eurasian group comes at a time when New Delhi is more decidedly aligning itself with the US’s strategic vision of pivoting to the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region – now no longer a euphemism for a China containment strategy.
Indo–US ties have deepened further since the Ufa summit last year. Any ambiguity that may have existed so far in the Chinese mind stands removed after Modi’s recent visit to Washington. Given the range of military and technological cooperation agreements signed, bilateral ties will only grow to unprecedented levels. The US decision to push for virtual ‘ally’ status for India and India’s willingness to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) may force a rethink within the SCO on the pace of its engagement with New Delhi.
Also on the issue of combating international terrorism, India’s position may sometimes be at odds with that of other SCO members. China, for example, by its own assertion stands committed to fight against the “three evils” – terrorism, separatism and religious extremism – through the SCO. However, Beijing’s double-speak on terrorism is not going to be liked by India.
Beijing has been using Pakistan and its instruments of terror to expand its own geopolitical interests. Such double-speak on terrorism may have prompted India to up the ante by allowing a group of Uyghur political activists to participate in a gathering in India. This Indian attempt at needling China came in the wake of China’s move to block India’s bid to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi banned by the UN.
China will expect India to be in consonance with the SCO’s position on the South China Sea dispute, no matter how difficult that may be. Not doing so would surely be dubbed as an unconstructive role on India’s part.
Clearly, as the SCO celebrates 15th anniversary this year, it has become more demanding as many non-Eurasian countries have expressed their willingness to join it. Belarus has observer status, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka are the SCO’s dialogue partners. Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have been Observers for several years now.
The Indian officials however maintain that the issue of expansion of the SCO is part of a long-drawn multilateral discussion and it is linked to India’s approach of seeking a “fairly flexible multilateralism” in its “extended neighbourhood.” They believe that singing of the Memorandum of Obligations will lead to a process of more intense engagement with the SCO members on several fronts like anti-terrorism, transport, and culture.
Prior to his departure from New Delhi to Tashkent, Modi said India looks forward to fruitful outcome from its engagement at the SCO summit. India’s entry into SCO as a full member will provide it an opportunity to have extended cooperation with member countries in areas of defence, security and counter-terrorism. He said India attaches great importance to ties with Central Asia and always seeks to expand economic and people-to-people ties with the region.
But, does SCO membership actually hold any direct potential gains for India?
Entry to the SCO would create new opportunities for India to reconnect with Eurasia after a century of disruption. And it shares security concerns with the region, especially related to combating terrorism and containing threats posed by ISIS and the Taliban. India could benefit by tapping into the SCO’s existing regional anti-terrorist structure that shares key information and intelligence on the movement of terrorists and drug–trafficking. Participation in the SCO’s counter-terror exercises could benefit our armed forces.
SCO membership will also provide India an avenue to secure its energy interests and invest in oilfields with an eye of getting its way on the pipeline routes. Proposed once by Iran, SCO has been talking about forming an “energy club”.
It can bring mutually beneficial partnerships. India could bring to the SCO table its techno–economic expertise, markets and financial commitment.
India’s experience in dealing with multi–cultural settings is an attraction among sections in Central Asia and the countries are appreciative of Indian efforts towards the civilian reconstruction process in Afghanistan.
On the connectivity front, One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have certainly put India in a quandary. Rhetoric aside, a set of projects envisaged under OBOR/CPEC could transform the region north of India into new economic hub and a zone of joint projects, which would definitely have an impact on India.
Iran is perhaps the only country that is not fully convinced that OBOR is a transparent initiative. Chinese port projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Oman are certainly driven by geopolitical motives, something that concerns both Iran and India.
By joining the SCO, India can think more sharply on how to respond to OBOR and find ways to join both the Russian and Chinese built transport network. In fact, India should be consulting Iran, Russia and the Caucasus states to coordinate on the various connectivity projects.
By committing investment to develop the Chabahar port, India has indicated its seriousness to boost regional connectivity. In fact, the Chabahar announcement and the inauguration of the Salma Dam in Afghanistan also signalled India’s strong commitment to the regional integration process. However, many doubt whether Chabahar is an Indian India’s gift for SCO or for America.
To exploit the opportunities under the SCO process, India cannot take any position other than a cooperative one. India should certainly join the SCO with a fresh mind without any ambiguity. At the same time, it should be mindful of the geopolitical calculations underpinning these connectivity projects. Finally, Indian intention to join the Eurasian Great Game is a good one, but it seems deficient in diplomatic finesse or capability to play that game. India still lacks understanding on China leave aside Eurasia as whole on which it lacks scholarship and depth of understanding. Much work is still needed.
(The writer served as Ambassador in Central Asia and is currently a Senior Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi)