By Rajan Kumar
The Indian media was rife with speculations about prime minister Modi’s meeting with his counterpart from Pakistan Imran Khan at the summit meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on 13-14 June at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Since that has been put to rest by official refutations, the attention has shifted to his meeting with Xi Jinping, the president of China. While bilateral meetings are important, the significance of the SCO goes way beyond such meetings. One should not miss the woods for the tree. The SCO takes decisions on several geopolitical and security frameworks which are vital for India.
Having begun as the Shanghai Five in 1996, and rechristened as the SCO in 2001, it is evolving as the central security and political organisation of Eurasia. The economic might of China and the military capability of Russia make it one of the most formidable regional organisations of the world. It started as a security organisation with a moderate ambition of resolving the border concerns, and jointly combat the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism. However, by its last summit at Qingdao (2018), it signed 22 pacts ranging from trade and security to promoting rule-based international order. All its members, except India, supported the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects of China. It called into question the US unilateralism and protectionism which threatened the regional security and disrupted the global financial order.
Since the Qingdao summit, two quixotic decisions of the US have alarmed the members of the SCO. The first is the unilateral US decision to impose sanctions on Iran, following its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear Deal; and second, the trade war between China and the US. In a dramatic announcement in April, the Trump administration decided to end all waivers for import of oil from Iran. China and India, the two biggest oil importing countries, have adversely been impacted by this decision. The US did not consider it necessary to exempt even a friendly country like India, which had to stop importing oil from Iran. Its sanctions on Russia will also impact arms import from there. Many Indian experts argue that India should not succumb to such pressures, and is under no obligation to respect sanctions which are not approved by the United Nations. China and Russia are upfront in opposing such measures. There are reports that they are working on a new trading and payment system to circumvent the protectionist measures of the US. They will discuss this issue with India at the Bishkek summit. Since Iran is also an observer-state, negotiation becomes easier. If India joins this alternative system, this can easily mitigate the impact of US sanctions on Iran.
The rising US protectionism raises concerns for many SCO states. The US and China are headed for a prolonged trade war, but other members cannot remain unaffected. In response to a question on the impact of growing trade war on India, the Minister of External Affairs, S Jaishankar noted, “India will have to navigate the US-China situation. Nuanced hedging strategies have to be handled carefully — you can end up scoring with everybody, or getting on the wrong side of everybody.”
India became a new victim of protectionism after the termination of the General System of Preference (GSP) benefits, which will impact worth $5.6 billion of its exports. The SCO and the BRICS are the two forums where India, in collaboration with China and Russia, can address its concerns related to global governance.
To be sure, India’s strategy at the SCO, unlike Russia and China, is not directed against the US. It is well aware of its constraints in terms of material and technical capabilities. Its main goal is to enhance economic cooperation with the Eurasian states and benefit from the security frameworks, especially on counter-terrorism. The issue of global terrorism, instability in Afghanistan, and its connectivity project through Iran are the critical subjects that will concern India at the Bishkek summit.
As a victim of terrorism from its neighbourhood and beyond, it would like to play an active role in halting the expansion of radicalism and countering global terrorism. It has signed several agreements with Uzbekistan, Russia and other states to curb the spread of radical Islam in Central Asia. It is concerned about the growing presence of IS, al-Qaeda and other indigenous terrorist organisations in the region. The possible return of the IS terrorists from Syria and Iraq poses a serious threat to the security in Eurasia. This, along with the growing influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will have long-term implications for the region, and the SCO must strengthen its collective strategy to counter radicalism and terrorism.
India would like to raise the matter of terrorism from Pakistan, but given the dominance of China and the presence of Pakistan in this organisation, it is unlikely to make any progress on this count. The SCO charter forbids the raising of bilateral issues.
Finally, India enjoys immense goodwill among the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. Surrounded by powerful neighbours, they look for countervailing assistance from external sources. India’s advantage in Central Asia is that unlike Russia or China, it does not share borders with any of these states. It has a long history of interaction and is seen as a benevolent power and a successful democracy. It can build upon the prevailing goodwill, and the SCO provides a unique platform to that end.
The author is Associate Professor, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)