By Dr Rajorshi Roy
The 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit is scheduled to be held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan during 15-16 September 2022. Comprising 40 per cent of the global population, this Eurasian organisation has expanded in scope and reach since its inception more than two decades ago. Today, in conjunction with its eight full-time members and several dialogue and observer partners, SCO straddles Central, North, South and West Asia. This makes it one of the largest pan-regional organisations, with a stated common goal of “safeguarding regional security and promoting regional development”.
Nevertheless, the ongoing tumultuous geo-political flux could cast a shadow on the upcoming SCO summit. It includes the War in Ukraine which has upended regional equilibrium including the balance of ties between the two key SCO protagonists in Russia and China. Similarly, the prospects of SCO morphing into an anti-Western grouping from a non-Western one could dilute its essence amongst some of its members who put a premium on multi-alignment. Bilateral friction between SCO members and emergence of mini-coalitions in this grouping too present their own set of strategic challenges. These would need to be navigated to maintain SCO’s relevance.
With India poised to take over the Presidency of SCO at the culmination of Samarkand summit, the pertinent questions that arise are the salience of this grouping for India, its report card over the years and its future amidst ongoing geo-political churnings.
Jury is still out
Despite emerging as a prominent Eurasian organisation, the jury is still out on the true efficacy of SCO. This stems from the inherent dynamics amongst its founding members dating back to its origin. Designed as a vehicle to resolve festering boundary issues between China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) in 1996, this organisation, driven largely by Moscow and Beijing, evolved into its current avatar in 2001 with the aim of expanding cooperation in the security, economic and cultural arenas in the Eurasian space.
However, this period also coincided with the relative decline of Russia amidst China’s meteoric rise leading Moscow to cede strategic space to Beijing, especially in the economic realm. This trend has continued today with China emerging as the region’s dominant economic partner while simultaneously expanding its geo-strategic footprints.
Inevitably, SCO has had to deal with the perception of China calling the shots to promote its agenda of a Pax Sinica, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forming its vital toolkit. Unsurprisingly, the ambitious SCO goal of creating inclusive economic and connectivity linkages in Eurasia has not taken off amidst China’s dominant economic position in the region.
Meanwhile, amidst their ongoing confrontation with the West, Russia and China have sought to insulate their Eurasian neighbourhood from perceived Western machinations. The CARs ruling regimes too have benefited from this safety net of the Russia-China tandem given the potential of their domestic upheavals morphing into another Arab Spring.
Notably, there also exists a trust deficit between a few SCO members. China’s unilateralism on the India-China border, Pakistan’s denial of land access to India to reach Central Asia and the China-Pakistan nexus in undermining India’s interests in Eurasia are all reflective of some members not walking the talk of endorsing the lofty Shanghai Spirit.
This includes “respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, equality, consultation, mutual trust, mutual benefit, and pursuit of common development”. Interestingly, even the CARs remain fearful of Russia and suspicious of China. This has incentivised them to diversify their partnerships in order to strengthen their strategic autonomy.
Meanwhile, SCO’s robust track-record in tackling its core security priorities – the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism – has been marred by perceptions of its “double standards”. It is reflected in SCO adopting a far tougher posture on threats faced by its founding members in Eurasia vis-à-vis the South Asian region. This compartmentalisation has seen the SCO unable to reach a consensus on Pakistan sponsored terrorism, mostly on account of China shielding its “all weather friend”.
Despite the complexities involved, it would appear that there exists greater merit in India sitting inside the SCO tent, where decisions are taken on the basis of consensus, thereby making India a Eurasian stakeholder, rather than sitting outside. Inevitably, developments in Eurasia, which lies in close proximity to India, have a direct bearing on India’s geo-strategic calculus.
In this vein, SCO provides India a viable platform to address a number of its continental interests and concerns. This includes strengthening India’s renewed outreach to CARs who themselves have sought to diversify their relations beyond Russia and China. India’s positive and benign image, anchored in historical linkages and robust developmental partnerships that eschew mercantilism, hold India in good stead.
Similarly, SCO’s ongoing initiatives aimed at stabilising Afghanistan hold relevance. This is notwithstanding the fact that India and SCO have not always been on the same page on engaging the Taliban. Being part of dialogue on Afghanistan would likely provide pointers to the emerging regional dynamics apart from preventing India’s regional marginalisation.
SCO’s initiatives in tackling the “three evils” too carry resonance. The stationing of India’s representative at the organisation’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent provides an opportunity to share intelligence. This is also a platform to track the “evils” in Eurasia, given the potential of their spill over into South Asia thereby creating an arc of regional instability. It even provides India a platform to maintain pressure on SCO to adopt a uniform position on terrorism. This is part of India’s endeavour to sensitise the organisation’s member states on India’s concerns on terrorism – an issue which affects most of SCO stakeholders.
Meanwhile, India’s membership of SCO inherently strengthens multipolarity in Eurasia. India’s emphasis on open, inclusive and transparent connectivity projects, anchored in the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), gives regional countries options beyond BRI. This is looked upon favourably by the key SCO protagonists in Russia and CARs who have shared concerns of a Eurasian order dominated by China. Arguably, multipolarity, which helps moderate unilateralism, is beneficial not just at the global but also the regional level.
In fact, sitting inside the SCO tent also allows India to address the China-Pakistan tandem which has sought to undermine India’s outreach to CARs. Paradoxically, SCO provides India with a stage to engage both China and Pakistan bilaterally on the side-lines of SCO summits. These could provide an opening to potential thaw in ties. In the same vein, SCO’s military interactions in the form of joint exercises could act as potential confidence building measures (CBMs) apart from providing a window to each other’s tactics and doctrines.
Inevitably, SCO’s institutionalised dialogue mechanisms at multiple levels, including Head of State, Foreign and Defence Ministers and National Security Advisors, provide an opportunity to discuss regional issues, notwithstanding the bilateral friction between members.
However, this is not a one-way street. India’s membership of SCO also provides the organisation with greater legitimacy on account of India’s growing global heft amidst Western allegations of SCO’s raison d’être being an anti-West body.
Ongoing geopolitical flux and existing contradictions in SCO would, inevitably, necessitate deft Indian diplomacy to secure India’s national interests.
The template for charting India’s own course, acceptable to the majority of SCO members, already exists. This is evident in Prime Minister Modi’s articulation of the foundational dimension of Eurasia being “SECURE”. The letters in the word SECURE are S for Security of citizens, E for Economic development for all, C for Connecting the region, U for Uniting the people, R for Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity, and E for Environmental protection.
India could leverage the wide acceptance of this proposal to build stronger coalitions within the SCO which would be more sensitive to India’s two core concerns involving terrorism and expanding connectivity in the region. As such, India’s emphasis on adopting a holistic approach towards terrorism would likely need to be sustained. Optically, it might be difficult for the SCO naysayers to consistently dissent on a topic as sensitive as terrorism. A similar pressure-tactic approach could also be adopted on expanding connectivity by emphasising on openness and inclusivity. This could be anchored to INSTC being not one but a multi-arterial and multi-dimensional project that benefits the majority of its stakeholders.
Meanwhile, the fact remains that the potential of SCO remains untapped. Pooling of strengths in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), climate change and health would benefit the peoples of SCO member states. Theoretically, SCO could help unlock connectivity between Central and South Asia, thereby creating an arc of economic advantage between the two regions.
Author is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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