Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta
India shares a close historical and cultural relationship with Central Asia, which it maintained until its partition and the foundation of Pakistan in 1947. Conflicts between New Delhi and Islamabad have seriously hampered connectivity between India and Central Asia. As a result, one of India’s key motives for joining the SCO was reconnecting with Eurasian nations through this multi-alignment regional organisation. Cooperation in Afghanistan is another important component of India’s SCO agenda. Because of Afghanistan’s volatile status, the region has been plagued by a myriad of problems, including terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and transnational crime. SCO provides a forum for combating these challenges jointly and offering some solutions.
Prime Minister Modi described extremism as the root cause of regional problems in his speech at the 20th SCO summit in 2021. According to him, the Central Asian region has been an epicentre of progressive ideology. Sufism, for example, has flourished here for centuries and spread throughout the region and the world. Therefore, the SCO should develop a common blueprint to combat radicalism and extremism based on Central Asia’s historical heritage. Prime Minister Modi also suggested that the moderate, tolerant, and inclusive Islamic institutions and traditions that exist in India and almost all SCO countries should assist the SCO in developing a strong network among them in order to deal with radicalization smoothly. India will hold the SCO presidency for 2022–2023. This is a crucial opportunity for New Delhi to pursue its main goals of joining the SCO and giving its membership a new dimension.
Prime Minister Modi used the term SECURE in his statement at the 21st SCO Summit, which stands for citizen security, economic growth, regional connectivity, unity, respect for sovereignty and integrity, and environmental protection. In the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of the Eurasian region, initiatives suggested by PM Modi should be at the forefront of New Delhi’s priorities under its SCO presidency.
India has advanced many important ideas in SCO Summits since becoming a permanent member of this regional organisation in 2017. India’s suggestion to establish an SCO Startup Forum was one of those initiatives that were implemented. The First SCO Startup Forum featured one plenary session and six simultaneous activity zones, with 11 different activities taking place in three languages: English, Mandarin, and Russian. The Forum also drew global interest, with over 2,600 observers from 60 countries and six continents registering for the SCO Startup Forum. The Second SCO Startup Forum, held via video conference on October 27-28, 2021, was hosted by the Government of India’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade in collaboration with the SCO Secretariat.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), among other interaction mechanisms, provides an important platform for India to maintain dialogue and discussion with Central Asian leaders. New Delhi should optimise its Central Asia strategy during India’s SCO presidency. To counter China’s influence in the SCO and the Central Asian region, India must be proactive. India can also make significant contributions to the hard power capacity development of Central Asian nations. Joint defence manufacturing should be prioritised in addition to combined military exercises and training.
India-Russia cooperation in Central Asia has much potential in the context of Moscow’s waning influence in the region. To improve commerce and trade with the Eurasian region, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union could be considered as soon as possible.As part of India’s Central Asian policy, FTAs with specific countries in the region should also be prioritised. Digital cooperation offers a lot of promise for India-Central Asia relations.This is an area where New Delhi can outperform other countries. SCO can also play an important role in promoting India’s cultural heritage (Yoga), traditional medicine (Ayurveda), and educational potential.
INSTC and Chabahar should be promoted to increase trade with the region. In this context, a few issues, such as Indian banks’ unwillingness to work in Chabahar port, must be addressed soon.Since Pakistan and India joined the SCO, it has been expanding.Iran has joined SCO as a full member, which will significantly impact this organization.Iran’s role as a link between India and Central Asia cannot be overstated. As a result, increasing multifaceted cooperation between India and Iran should be an important component of India’s Central Asian strategy.The larger SCO now has greater visibility and political and economic development potential. Cultural trends will be reenergized as a result of this extension. Because Central Asia is a landlocked region, the entry of states like India and Iran to the SCO has not only improved communication between South, Central, and West Asia. Still, it will also strengthen Central Asian strategic autonomy. The expansion of the SCO may provide a potential balancing agent to dominant powers such as Russia and China for Central Asian countries.
The Indian presidency of the SCO has a lot of potential. New Delhi needs to emphasise shared cultural heritage as a unifying factor because it is a civilizational state and has close ties to all of the member nations. Second, challenges related to connectivity and trade development should be seriously discussed. India’s presidency must navigate a complex agenda while producing tangible results.
Author is Senior Research Associate (Central Asia), Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.
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