Significance of the SCO: It helps India secure its foothold in Eurasia

The SCO works on different principles, and its priorities are distinct: first, it does not intend to democratise political regimes, and second, it avoids strictly bilateral issues where consensus is unachievable. For the SCO, the nature of a regime is a domestic issue, and it has no business in interfering in such affairs.

Significance of the SCO: It helps India secure its foothold in Eurasia
SCO ensure political stability in central Asia. (File image)

By Rajan Kumar

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a unique political grouping consisting of Eurasian and neighbouring states. It is constantly evolving in scope, membership and institutional mechanisms. Having begun as an informal Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) in 1996, it graduated to become the SCO following the inclusion of Uzbekistan in 2001.

It expanded further with the entry of India and Pakistan in 2017,and nowIran is set to become a member. Moreover, at least ten other neighbouring states have shown interest in joining the organisation. The presence of the region’s key states makes it a formidable multilateral organisation.

It started as a forum to resolve border issues between China and the post-Soviet states. But over time, it has incrementally transformed itself into a viable political and security forum. The withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and the resultant power vacuum in the region enhanced the relevance of the SCO. This is the only regional organisation endowed with the resources and capability to deal with destabilising forces in Eurasia.

Western critics often downplay the relevance of the SCO for its lack of democratic credentials, for being an alliance of authoritarian regimes, and for pronounced disharmony and internal conflicts. They point to the violent border clashes among its members. These critics are not far off the mark, and their descriptions are accurate.

But the SCO works on different principles, and its priorities are distinct: first, it does not intend to democratise political regimes, and second, it avoids strictly bilateral issues where consensus is unachievable. For the SCO, the nature of a regime is a domestic issue, and it has no business in interfering in such affairs.

Strictly speaking, the core business of the SCO is to ensure political stability in Central Asia and enhance intra-regional cooperation. And to its credit, the SCO has succeeded in insulating Central Asian states from great power rivalry spurring disruptive transitions as witnessed in Ukraine and Georgia.

The charge often levelled against the SCO is that it protects and legitimises authoritarian regimes. As stated earlier, the SCO does not deliberate on the virtues of liberal democratic order. An unsaid consensus is that the West uses democracy as an instrument to encourage regime change and promote its own geopolitical agenda. Most SCO states advocated the principle of ‘sovereign democracy, which brooks no interference from outside in domestic affairs.

Outside here refers primarily to the West, as internal interferences are quite rampant. This principle of ‘sovereign democracy’ is solely about protecting sovereignty and pays only lip service to the idea of democracy. Despite being a democracy, India is also sceptical about the merits of democracy promotion. A general sense is that Western attempts to democratise Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Ukraine have proved disastrous, contributing merely to chaos and instability in the region.

On issues of internal conflicts, the SCO tends to sidestep cases which are strictly bilateral in nature. For instance, border conflicts between India and China or India and Pakistan do not figure in the SCO agenda. Not that the SCO is not concerned about such disputes. Rather, it deliberately skips such divisive issues fearing disastrous fallout on the organisation.

A general sense is that these are not the core concerns of Eurasia, and several other bilateral and multilateral mechanisms exist to resolve such issues. Distancing from such conflicts rather than intervention seems to be the preferred strategy of the SCO.

Nonetheless, the organisation does have moderating influences on the conflicting parties. It is widely believed thatNew Delhi and Beijing decided to disengage their armies at Patrolling Point 15 in the Gogra Hot Spring area of Ladakh just three days before the Samarkand Summit on 15-16 September 2022. The purpose was to create a positive atmosphere for their leaders to engage in Samarkand. The matured diplomacy of the two countries has not allowed their bilateral differences to come in the way of their multilateral engagements at the SCO and the BRICS.

Finally, a popular myth about the SCO being the ‘NATO of the East’ must be put to rest forever. The SCO does not have its own military, and its military exercises are essentially counter-terror drills. Further, it is not a military alliance, nor can it become so in future so long as India remains an active member. New Delhicontinues to follow a policy of neutrality and strategic autonomy.It will keep away from any formal military alliance.

The SCO does speak against American hegemony and unilateralism and in the past, it issued statements asking the US to withdraw its military bases from Central Asia. But the SCOdoes not perceive itself as an anti-American formation. India and some states of Central Asia will resist such an attempt. Further, the SCO has neither the capacity nor intent to create an alternative world order. The SCO endorses the UN Charter and remains committed to the existing institutions. At best, it demands reforms of multilateral institutions.

To be sure, Russia and China are wary of US influence in the region. The war in Ukraine and tensions in the Taiwan strait have brought Moscow and Beijing closer. There are speculations about Xi Jinping and Putin issuing statements against the US at Samarkand. Beijing, however, is cautious about being identified with Moscow on the issue of Ukraine. It condemns the West for provocation but stops short of endorsing Russian intervention in Ukraine.

It would be interesting to see how the SCO frames its statement on Ukraine. However, the Ukraine crisis and Taiwan tensions are not the SCO’s primary concerns. They are larger global issues beyond the scope of SCO’s mandate and capacity. Western commentators also speculate about a military alliance between Russia and China, but if that ever happens, that would be independent of the SCO. 

Due to its historical linkages, Russia treats the Central Asian region as its own backyard and is cautious of other dominant powers. China’s growing economic clout in the region discomforts Moscow. It is widely believed that Russia brought India into the SCO to counterbalance China. India, having no political or territorial ambitions in Central Asia, can have moderating influence on others. New Delhi supports Russian initiatives to integrate the Eurasian region through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

India’s moderate ambitions at the SCO

Broadly speaking, the SCO is a part of India’s multi-alignment strategy. India’s traditional policy of strategic distancing during the NAM years has paved the way for the policy of strategic engagement with preeminent powers in the world. From New Delhi’s perspective, the SCO is an essential forum for the following reasons: it provides a convenient platform to connect and engage collectively with the Central Asian states; second, it recognises India’srole beyond South Asia and thus surpassesthe physical and psychological barrier created by Pakistan; third, it can pursue its connectivity and developmental projects in Eurasia; fourth, it can play an active role in Afghanistan; and finally, it can raise the issue of radicalism and extremism emanating from the region.

New Delhi is particularly concerned about the radicalisation of society and terrorist groups operating from the region. Several militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate from the Af-Pak region. Central Asian communities have remained largely moderate, but the influence of radicalisation in future cannot be ruled out. They need external assistanceto counter the terrorist networks.

The SCO has become an indispensable forum because Pakistan and Afghanistan are also affiliated with this organisation. The SCO-CSTO Outreach Summit on Afghanistan is an important initiative. New Delhi’s attempts to ban some of the terrorist organisations active in Kashmir are unlikely to succeed, given Islamabad’s resistance and Beijing’s backing.

New Delhi has remained a marginal player in Central Asia owing to the lack of land connectivity. Central Asian states are landlocked, and Pakistan has become a permanent barrier. New Delhi has somewhat managed to overcome this obstacle by working with other countries to develop alternative regional routes. Reports suggest that theInternational North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)will likely become operational soon.

An Iranian company, Iran Shipping Lines,claims to have transported more than 3,000 tonnes of products using 114 containers along the INSTC between May and July 2022. The 7,200-km network of INSTC offers the shortest connectivity route, and it cuts down the carriage cost by 30 per cent. It used to take nearly 40 days to reach St Petersburg through the INSTC, it takes only 25 days. India wants Chabahar Port to be included in the INSTC. This port is vital for India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Since India’s trade with Russia and Europe is bound to grow further, the importance of this route cannot be overstated.

New Delhi treats the SCO as a Eurasian organisation. There are BRICS and RIC for more significant global issues, but the SCO is the most appropriate forum for Eurasian issues. Unlike Russia or China, New Delhi does not treat the SCO as a platform to counter the US influence in the region.

The SCO, in turn, benefits immensely from India’s membership. It lends credibility to the organisation. With India being a member, the SCO cannot be denigrated as a grouping of authoritarian states working against the international order. New Delhi portrays itself as a benevolent player in the region. Both Russia and Central Asian states find a non-threatening partner in the form of India.

Further, New Delhi does not really seek to counter China in the region. China’s trade with Central Asia amounted to about $38 billion in 2020. Its investment reached $40 billion at the end of 2020. Compared to that, India’s Trade and investment is insignificant. India’s trade was estimated to be about $2 billion with Central Asia. It has no project comparable to China’s BRI. It seeks to align its interests with the Russian project of more extensive Eurasian integration. It is negotiating separately with the Eurasian Economic Union for a free trade agreement.

To sum up, the SCO is emerging as a pivotal organisation in Eurasia. India’s membership in the SCO is critical to its ambition to secure a foothold in Eurasia. New Delhi is gradually carving out its own space in the region through the SCO and other independent initiatives such as the India-Central Asia Summit.

Fortunately, Russia and Central Asian states treat India as a benevolent partner bereft of any political or territorial ambitions in the region. And therefore, they are willing to forge the closest possible partnerships with India.

Author teaches in the School of International Studies, JNU.

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