India-China standoff: Why the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation still matters for India?

Updated: Sep 01, 2020 12:12 PM

The interactions of the foreign and the defence ministers of the BRICS and the SCO in early September will culminate in the summit meetings in October.

India-China standoff, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICS, Xiamen, Doklam standoff, narendra modi, Ladakh crisis, SCO, latest news on india china standoffAn immediate withdrawal of the Chinese troops would have been the best outcome for the government. (File photo: IE)

By Rajan Kumar & Sandeep Tripathi

A prolonged military standoff at the Himalayan border has created a new dilemma for New Delhi’sengagements at the BRICS (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). A series of meeting of Indian and Chinese representatives is in the offing in the near future. The interactions of the foreign and the defence ministers of the BRICS and the SCO in early September will culminate in the summit meetings in October.

The credibility of these organisations would depend on their ability to manage the present crisis and restore normalcy between India and China. Although bilateral conflict resolution is not within the purview of the SCO or the BRICS, their relevance would be greatly enhanced if they can play a role in facilitating negotiations for an early resolution of the conflict. Within the SCO, Russia can employ its influence over Beijing and New Delhi. However, ultimately it will be up to the two contending neighbours to negotiate a settlement.

In a similar stalemate over Doklam in 2017, Russia’s back-channel diplomacy had been crucial to the eventual disengagement. The then-forthcoming BRICS summit at Xiamen put an ethical pressure on the leaders to de-escalate tensions and demonstrate a united front. Some experts argue that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made his visit to Xiamen conditional on the satisfactory resolution of the Doklam standoff.

There is a concern that the visuals of Modi-Xi sharing the stage at the forthcoming SCO and the BRICS summits, when the two armies are embroiled in a face-off at Ladakh, may not go down well with an agitated Indian audience. New Delhi would take every step to avoid such embarrassment. The best option is to resolve the standoff before the Summit or else it would be under pressure to take other steps to please its audience. Recently, it cancelled the participation of its troops for the joint military exercise Kavkaz 2020. It did not want its troops to be seen practising with the Chinese forces. Anti-China sentiments are at an all-time high, and Indian leadership cannot afford to be soft and conciliatory on China.

The ruling BJP government has been unable to shape the narrative on the Ladakh crisis in its favour. An immediate withdrawal of the Chinese troops would have been the best outcome for the government. However, the significant casualties of Indian troops that triggered a seemingly interminable standoff has put the government on the defensive. The stark facts on the ground have rendered ineffective the usual propaganda permeated through the ruling party’s social media warriors. On the other hand, the opponents of the government have acquired a lethal weapon to flog the government on its favourite turf of national security. Having touted a policy of zero-tolerance against China, the government is caught in its trap with narrowing options at the border. To be fair to the government, however, key functionaries have downplayed the incident and are persistent in breaking the deadlock.

India should leverage the multilateral forums such as the SCO and the BRICS to its advantage. India’s indispensability for these organisations can be exploited to advance its national interest. Its presence in these organisations tips the balance in its favour of Russia. Without India, China would exert a disproportionate influence over them. The border conflicts, however, have put a serious question mark on their efficacy in tackling the issues of global governance. An impression one gets is- how will they tackle the global issues if they cannot manage conflicts in their backyards.

This conflict is also pushing India closer to the US. A section of Indian experts advocates withdrawal from these organisations as a necessary precondition to forge a durable alliance with the US. Such advocacies are fraught with dangerous consequences for India’s interests in Eurasia.

The government, however, has not indicated that its policy towards the BRICS or the SCO is about to shift. Rajnath Singh, the Defence Minister of India, will be visiting Moscow to participate in the SCO defence ministers’ meet. S Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs, will take part in a virtual meeting of the foreign ministers of the BRICS countries on September 4, followed by his scheduled visit to Moscow on September 9-10 for the SCO foreign ministers’ meet.

At a broader level, India’s policy towards the BRICS and the SCO seeks to attain a geopolitical balance in the region. In the last two decades, India has cultivated strong ties with the United States. To balance this partnership, it has developed simultaneous relations with Russia and other powers. India cannot cede the space it has created assiduously through the BRICS and the SCO. Instead, it should try to protect its interests through these organisations.

It a fact that China, along with Russia and three Central Asian states, founded the Shanghai Five (later SCO) in 1996 to resolve the border issues. Over time, however, its expanding membership and agendas have imparted a new direction to this organisation. The SCO and the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) are the two critical security organisations in Eurasia. India’s disinterest in the SCO would amount to giving a walkover to China and Pakistan in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan.

As India connects to Eurasia through Chabahar, it becomes imperative to remain embedded to the security institutions in the region. It cannot function in isolation against terrorism and radicalism. Terrorism is an issue where the majority of the members of the SCO besides Pakistan would agree with India. Further, as the US army withdraws from Afghanistan, the SCO is likely to gain priority in that region. Given India’shigh economic and security stakes in Afghanistan, it would be in its interest to cooperate closely with the SCO.

Finally, India’s primary role in the SCO is to enhance security cooperation with Russia and Central Asian states on issues of radicalism, terrorism, secessionism and drug trafficking. India was inducted in this organisation to counterbalance the growing influence of China. And there is no reason why India can not play that role now. New Delhi can also convince Washington that it is in their interest if India remains active in the new great game of Central Asia.

(Rajan Kumar teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Sandeep Tripathi is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Legal Studies and Research, GLA University, Mathura, UP. Views expressed are personal.)

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